For the second time in two days, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith met with parents to discuss lead found above EPA standards in the sinks and faucets at their children’s school.
Rose City Park, which serves several hundred kids from across the city, is one of two schools where recent testing requested by a parent revealed high lead levels in some water fixtures.
The school is home to the Access Academy, a program for talented and gifted students, and to first and third graders from nearby Beverly Clearly elementary, who attend class at Rose City Park to relieve overcrowding.
Several hundred parents packed into the school’s small gym to grill the Superintendent. Some had practical questions : where can my child get a blood test for lead? Was the amount of lead in the drinking water here enough to cause health problems or brain damage?
Many parents said they had lost trust in the district to keep their children safe, and asked Smith point blank to resign. “Does that fire alarm work? Is there asbestos in those vents? Do you want to tell us what works and doesn’t work in our school?” demanded Rob Neild, who has one child at Rose City Park.
Many parents asked why the district tested for lead at the school in late March, but waited to reveal the high results until just last week.
Smith defended her response to the situation. “With the information I had, I acted immediately to take care of our kids,” she said, noting that she budgeted $450,000 for lead testing and remediation this year, and ordered that schools switch to bottled water last week.
Smith told parents she is looking at the district’s communication protocols around lead testing. In general, Portland schools have tested water fixtures for lead as a result of requests made by individual families, and the results have been communicated to to those families and school principals, but not to other affected students and parents.
Smith said that she has reviewed records of hundreds of tests the school district did for lead at schools and other buildings, and in almost every case, when the results came back high the district followed its protocol: it turned off the water and installed filters or warning signs.
But many in the room said that isn’t what happened at Rose City Park.
“I’ve been here for two years. You tested us in March, and you told us last week. We’ve been all drinking gallons and gallons of sink water, because we all didn’t know. All of us — the teachers, and our kids. My own child, and all of my students,” said Molly Sims, a teacher at Rose City Park who also has a child at the school.
The teacher’s union has also said teachers were not aware of any policy against drinking water from school sinks.
On Wednesday night, fountains at Rose City Park were marked with tape and signs that read “Fountain Closed For Lead Testing,” but sinks in the women’s bathrooms had no signs, and only some classroom sinks were marked as not safe for drinking.
Smith also acknowledged that there have been problems in the past. A review found that at five Portland schools that showed high lead levels, the district can’t say if it followed up or not.
Those schools are Applegate Elementary School, Jackson Middle School, Peninsula Elementary School, Vernon Elementary School, and Whitman Elementary School.
Smith says she is bringing in independent investigators to look into the mistakes that were made, the district is planning to test all its schools for lead over the summer. Meanwhile, students are drinking bottled water for the last few weeks of school.