Lead In The Water

As Oregon Schools Admit To Lack Of Lead Testing Data, Possible State Mandate Looms

By Rob Manning (OPB) and Jason Bernert (OPB)
Portland, Oregon June 4, 2016 12:33 a.m.

Related: Lead In The Water: How We Got Here


Many Oregon school districts are acknowledging they haven’t tested their water for lead, but they are announcing plans to do so. State lawmakers appear ready to mandate such testing in the future.

You might've first heard about lead in drinking water from Flint, Michigan. And locally, you probably heard about problems in Portland schools.

But there were similar levels in Salem and at a middle school in Beaverton.

"We actually had a student ask 'when was the last time you had the drinking fountains tested for lead?'" said Beaverton spokesperson Maureen Wheeler.

She says when Highland Park Middle School had elevated levels, the district told parents right away.

"If you've been in the building, as a parent or a youngster, you've known that we've had brown water. So the turbidity or the color of the water has been present for some time," she said. "Usually people would run the water or ... many kids bring their own bottled water into school. So we immediately told families once we got the results."

Drinking fountains were shut off at Highland Park, and late Friday, district officials announced they've also been turned off at five older elementary schools in Beaverton.

Many Oregon school districts are acknowledging they haven’t tested their water for lead, but they are announcing plans to do so.


Neither Beaverton nor Portland has done systematic testing of its drinking water in years. In Beaverton, it's been since the 1980s. In Portland, it's since 2001. Both intend to start testing this summer.

They don't have to under state law. And, even when schools do test, there's no obligation to tell parents. That's been Portland's biggest problem.

"As a parent of three children in Portland Public Schools – schools that had high levels of lead at one point, I was horrified. Flabbergasted, actually, that this had happened," said Portland parent and chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners Deborah Kafoury. 

"As the chair of the board of health, I really can not understand how we were not notified earlier," Kafoury said.

After finally acknowledging test results conducted between 2004 and last year, Portland Public released a spreadsheet of mitigation steps it took. But now that Kafoury has caught up with Portland Public's lead data, she has her doubts about its accuracy.

“I don’t trust the testing that’s been done, to be quite honest," Kafoury said. "The schools that had just recently been high – Creston and Rose City Park — they were on the list that had been remediated. So obviously there’s something inadequate about the data that they have and the testing that’s been done.”

Related: Portland School Officials Publish Database Of Past Lead Fixes, Remaining Problems

Kafoury intends to have her staff closely monitor Portland Public Schools as it follows through on testing this summer.

But inadequate data is not just a Portland problem. Gresham-Barlow, Forest Grove, Lake Oswego and Oregon City are among the districts that haven't tested at all. Some districts, including Parkrose, can't find testing records. And Centennial officials are concerned their recent results aren't accurate. All of those districts are planning lead tests in the coming weeks and months. 

Portland's missteps have drawn attention all the way to Bend, where State Rep. Knute Buehler has called on Superintendent Carole Smith to resign. The Republican Bend doctor was also among the first to call for a state lead testing requirement.  
"I think there's about eight to ten states that have fairly sophisticated structures in place already," Buehler said.

Some school districts support a requirement. Lake Oswego School District finance director Stuart Ketzler said a lead testing mandate sounds reasonable but not a one-size-fits-all.

“It may well be that experts will tell you that a site that tests real low, or not detectable levels of lead, doesn’t need to be tested every year, or even every other year,” Ketzler said.

In the past, Oregon school districts have objected to requirements that don't come with additional funding. The Lake Oswego finance director would gladly accept money for lead tests, but he's not holding his breath.

"You can always expect that we would always enjoy that but rarely does that ever happen," Ketzler said.

At least one legislator is listening though.

"We will need to look for funding," said Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat who supports a statewide lead testing requirement for schools. Debrow helped lead one of the PPS community meetings on lead this week. 

"It's essential that the districts do it," he said. "I don't know that we'll have enough money available to pay for every district to do it. I'd like to think 'yes.' But that's going to be a function of the budget process."

Nearly every school district that has acknowledged it hasn't tested for lead recently says it will do so as soon as possible. At this point, those are tests they'll have to do on their own dime.