Oregon school districts learned Friday they can get reimbursed for testing drinking water for lead.
The Legislature’s emergency board set aside $5 million to pay back districts. But the actual spending amount will depend on what lawmakers have available and what school leaders ask for in December.
The state’s only going to reimburse for fixtures used for human consumption, so spigots, shower heads and sinks in broom closets that Portland Public Schools tested positive for lead aren’t likely eligible for reimbursement.
State officials signaled a willingness to work with districts.
“Our intent is to cover those fixtures that a school district or education service district (ESD) believes could be used for human consumption,” said the Oregon Department of Education in a statement provided by communications director Tricia Yates. “ODE will be flexible in working with school districts and ESDs on the assumption that any testing they do will be on the basis of risk related to human consumption.”
PPS interim communications director Courtney Westling said the district has spent $782,000 to date, though that total could change. The district found virtually every school had elevated lead levels in at least a few fixtures.
Westling said the district intends to ask for reimbursement, but is not expecting to get paid back for all the fixtures it tested.
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?
Other large districts have also done extensive testing: Beaverton and Salem-Keizer both tested fixtures used for drinking or food preparation throughout their dozens of school buildings. Both districts found lead in many fixtures, though some schools had lead show up exclusively in smaller concentrations — below the 15 parts per billion federal action level.
Some school districts drew water from a representative sample of fixtures at schools, with the intention of broader testing if results showed elevated levels.
The state’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, Salam Noor, released a statement supporting the emergency board’s action. Noor credited Oregon school districts and education service districts for testing their water for lead in the absence of a legal mandate or funding from the state to do it.
In approving the spending, Oregon’s Democratic Speaker of the House, Tina Kotek, noted there’s a bigger issue.
“This is money for testing,” Kotek said as the emergency board approved setting aside money to reimburse schools. “So depending on the results of the plans that come from the districts and the testing that we’re helping to facilitate … it’s very likely we’ll have this conversation back, in terms of the facility upgrades that might be necessary.”
Those upgrades will be expensive. Portland alone has estimated fixing its school plumbing at $200 million.