Initial review of the documents by OPB doesn’t reveal major differences with what the public has already heard about Portland’s problems in handling lead in drinking water — nor its deeper, organizational and leadership failures.
Portland school buildings have problems. Lead in the water is just one of them.
Portland administrators acknowledged the existence of lead in drinking water at two schools in late May, and they’ve since published test results for schools throughout the district, showing frequent high lead levels. The district plans to provide students and staff with water from dispensers or disposable bottles when the school year starts in a few weeks.
In the emails released Monday, Superintendent Carole Smith doesn’t appear to be in the middle of conversations about the condition of buildings. The good news there is she wasn’t hiding anything, but it also means she was out of the loop and not actively engaging with the issue until it became a major public controversy.
In the district bureaucracy below Smith, the emails reveal more evidence that facility staff looked at certain issues differently from how teachers and parents may view them.
For instance, facility staff have long regarded sinks and drinking fountains differently, specifically that fountains are for drinking and sinks are not. Teachers and parents say that distinction was seldom clear.
OPB reported earlier this year on parents at Rigler Elementary who were trying to get stickers attached to sinks, so that kids and adults would know not to drink out of those fixtures.
The just-released emails show how that conversation evolved, with communications staff designing and costing out stickers for the entire school district, while facility administrators are responding more narrowly to the concerns at Rigler.
The difference of opinion and the slow pace of communication inside the district appears to have bogged down its response.
The released documents go beyond lead and water to cover environmental hazards like asbestos, lead paint and mold.
The emails discuss a ceiling collapse at Winterhaven in Southeast Portland in November 2012, when there had been a lasting period of rain. Staff expressed relief that it happened on a parent-conference day, and students weren’t there.
The event highlights uncertainty around rules for emergency events and who has authority to sign off on immediate costs.
An analysis of East Sylvan, where students will be moving this fall as part of the district’s boundary changes on the west side, showed more than a dozen spots that tested positive for asbestos. Much of the asbestos is pipe insulation, which might not be at risk of falling apart and risking student health. But some of it would be right at students’ feet in the floor.
The documents also examine the years of deterioration at Kellogg Middle School. That’s an important building because it’s a linchpin for re-organizing Southeast Portland schools. Kellogg has been closed for a decade, but PPS plans to re-open it as soon as 2018 to facilitate the district’s move from K-8 buildings into elementary and middle schools.
A review of Kellogg in December 2015 found lots of asbestos, including many spots where it was falling apart. The hazard inspection also found leaks, water damage, mold and peeling paint where lead could be a problem. It even turned up a fairly large bird’s nest.
Portland Public Schools had added Kellogg to projects in a proposed $750 million school bond slated to go before voters this November, but school board members recently agreed to delay bringing that bond to voters until next May, at the earliest.
Instead, board members are focusing on hiring an interim superintendent to replace Carole Smith. The board intends to announce their choice at an Aug. 16 meeting.