The kids in Oregon’s largest school district went back to school this week, and none of them were allowed to drink from school water fountains.
That’s because Portland Public Schools still hasn’t fixed the lead issues that plagued it and other school districts statewide last year.
But what is the scope of the lead problem?
Each school district is fully responsible for testing its water and reporting the results. The districts also fully responsible for updating the public on what they’re doing about it. No state agency is tracking the progress of school districts taking steps to address lead problems after they’re identified.
Three of Oregon’s largest school districts discovered high levels of lead in their water, and had to do something about it. That includes PPS, Beaverton School District and Salem-Keizer.
Small school districts have been affected too.
Beaverton has since made 131 fixture replacements, and it’s confident all the work is finished. Salem-Keizer is on its way, too. It has completed 115 fixture replacements and expects to finish the last 16 in the coming weeks.
PPS, meanwhile, is just getting started. But unlike the other two districts, PPS says that that’s because it didn’t have the money to make the necessary upgrades.
Dave Northfield, PPS’ director of media relations, said the district had to wait for Portland voters to approve a $790 million bond that included $28 million for water upgrades.
Northfield said after it was passed in May, the district still had a lot of planning to do. Even a small district like the Curry County School District in Southwest Oregon wasn’t too worried about the money. Their fixture replacements were funded by a local foundation. They’re also a much smaller district, running just two schools with 500 students total.
PPS, meanwhile, plans to test all 90 of its schools. By comparison, it has jurisdiction over more schools than Beaverton and Salem-Keizer, which run 51 and 65 schools respectively.
Even as schools make fixture replacements, districts and Oregon have realized that the problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Curry County’s district superintendent Roy Durfee says he plans to test his district’s water for lead again soon.
State legislators have realized this too. SB 1062 directs the Oregon Health Authority to set guidelines and protocols on how to go about lead testing — including when to do it. That bill passed in the state Legislature this session and was signed by Gov. Kate Brown. These standardized protocols are expected to be in place by 2019.