Oregon has approved new rules for schools aimed at improving health conditions in the state’s aging buildings. The State Board of Education approved new regulations Wednesday, in response to prompting from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown last spring that education officials work with the Oregon Health Authority to tighten environmental health rules governing public schools and child care facilities.
In a statement, Brown applauded the state board’s action.
“Children and families — as well as educators — must be assured of safe and healthy school facilities,” Brown said. “That’s why I directed state agencies to work together with school officials to ensure that local school districts address environmental health factors, such as lead in drinking water and paint.”
Communities across the Northwest were shocked recently to discover dangerously high lead levels in their water. How did this happen, and what’s being done to fix the problem?
But the rules won’t require lead testing. That’s because the State Board of Education doesn’t have the power to require school districts to test for lead. The board can draft rules, but it can’t write a rule that requires school districts take actions that aren’t backed up by law.
The board can require districts to provide plans. So the board is mandating what are called “Healthy and Safe School Plans.” They would require radon testing, and provide details on integrated pest management plans — both of which are already covered by Oregon law.
Testing for lead in drinking water and in paint doesn’t have a legal mandate in Oregon.
So the “healthy school plans” must summarize the school district’s approach, but a district could choose not to test for lead under the rules. Officials suggest school districts may feel pressure to test for lead, since they’ll have to publicize that they’re not testing, if that’s the course they choose.
The first such healthy school plans are due in draft form to local school boards and the state by Oct. 1, 2016. Final versions are due by Jan. 1, 2017.
Districts would have to publish annual reports based on the plans, but they wouldn’t have to update the plans with the state unless they build or acquire new buildings, or change their plans.
Lawmakers have discussed introducing a bill in the 2017 legislative session to require school districts to test for lead. But legislators are already hearing from school leaders that mandates should come with funding to cover the costs of testing. However, testing costs pale in comparison to the price tag for fixing the old plumbing in school buildings. School districts generally cover most of those costs through locally-approved bond measures, though Oregon started paying districts through a matching fund for school infrastructure last spring.