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Health | Education | local | News | Lead In The Water

Improving Oregon Schools Starts With Plans, Stops At Dollar Signs

Drinking fountains are sealed off this summer at Rigler Elementary School in Northeast Portland, due to concerns over elevated lead in the water at Portland Public Schools.

Drinking fountains are sealed off this summer at Rigler Elementary School in Northeast Portland, due to concerns over elevated lead in the water at Portland Public Schools.

Rob Manning/OPB

Oregon students start heading back to school this week after a summer full of construction and testing aimed at making schools healthier places to learn.

Bottled water has replaced drinking fountains in many Oregon schools where lead was found in the plumbing. A number of other districts are still waiting on the results of recent lead tests.

That need for information caused Gov. Kate Brown to lean on state education and health officials for changes.

The State Board of Education responded with a new rule.

“The rule basically makes it a requirement that districts engage schools in the testing process, and provides a framework for collecting that information and reporting that information,” said Salam Noor, Oregon’s deputy superintendent of public instruction.

Salam Noor is Oregon's deputy superintendent of public instruction.

Salam Noor is Oregon’s deputy superintendent of public instruction.

 Oregon Department of Education

Noor said “requirement” and “testing,” but the board didn’t actually require schools to test for lead. It can’t. Only state lawmakers can do that.

So the state board is requiring “Healthy and Safe Schools Plans,” but districts could plan to not test for lead.

Many districts have already moved toward testing, however. Beaverton’s plumbing foreman Brent Tolliver showed contractors around Bonny Slope Elementary School this summer. It was built after lead standards were tightened.

Tolliver said the school may be newer, but lead testing is still useful.

“Because of how critical this can be, it was important to get a baseline in all of our schools to start,” Tolliver said, as he watched contractors sample water fixtures. “I can see the justification for it.”

Radon is another story when it comes to mandatory testing. The odorless, colorless, carcinogenic gas must be monitored under an Oregon law passed last year, but radon results aren’t due until the year 2021.

Portland Public Schools thought it was being proactive by testing for radon ahead of schedule. But the timing was bad. Parents were already reeling from the lead revelations when the first radon results arrived.

Darren Siegel’s daughter is at King K-8 in Northeast Portland, where radon was discovered.

“We will watch very closely. I’m not going to come to this school and make sure that the principal is holding the radon test to the walls,” Siegel said. “But we’ll be looking for communication.”

The new interim superintendent at Portland Public Schools, Bob McKean, said he’s making student health and safety his top priority. But he told OPB’s Think Out Loud this week that he faces a big, longstanding problem.

“There’s only so much you can do with 100-year-old facilities. You can put Band-Aids on them, but they’re still 100-year-old facilities,” McKean said.

It’s not just lead and radon, either. Old buildings get moldy and make kids sick. Asbestos can be harmful as it breaks down. Simple dust and poor ventilation in schools can affect kids’ breathing, and possibly exacerbate respiratory problems like asthma.

The clearest solution is simply to build new schools. But that’s much easier said than done. Portland’s chief of school modernization, Jerry Vincent, recently toured North Portland’s new Roosevelt High School.

“These are the first brand new, I’m told, high school facilities in 50-some years,” Vincent said, as he led school board members and reporters around the three-story building. “These have seismic, all the environmental health and safety issues resolved — these have all of that.”

Portland paid for the new buildings through a bond measure that voters approved in 2012. Roosevelt alone cost $90 million dollars and took years of planning and construction time.

Portland Public Schools has a substantial property tax base and generally supportive voters, although a bond measure failed in the district in 2011.

A recent report from the Oregon Education Association, Oregon PTA and Children First for Oregon pegged the statewide maintenance backlog at $7.6 billion. OEA president Hanna Vaandering said the enormous problem cries out for a state-level solution.

“Where do we start to address these issues and what kind of a timeline is reasonable for us to address these issues, so that our students truly are safe in our school buildings?” Vaandering asked. “And that — I don’t have an answer to say, ‘Here’s how we should do it.’”

Long-term, the Oregon Education Association is among groups pushing for more school funding so districts can spend on buildings without short-changing school programs.

Short-term, legislators are discussing a lead testing mandate. The question is whether they’ll offer schools money to do it.

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