Get the lead out: Parents confront PPS officials

Special school board meeting scheduled for Tuesday night

Bottles of water piled inside Creston School in Portland after lead was found in the drinking water at 2 schools, May 31, 2016 (KOIN)
Bottles of water piled inside Creston School in Portland after lead was found in the drinking water at 2 schools, May 31, 2016 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Students and staff at Portland Public Schools will be drinking bottled water starting this week, after high amounts of lead were found in water sources at two schools.

The school district announced last week that tests in March found elevated levels of lead in 14 of 92 water sources at Creston K-8 School and the Rose City Park School.

Some of the elevated lead levels found were 2 to 3 times higher than the district’s standard of 15 parts per billion. That is stricter than the EPA’s standard of 20 parts per billion.

The district says it will provide bottled drinking water for all district students and staff through the end of the school year, until schools can be tested this summer.

Superintendent Carole Smith will ask for an outside investigator to look into the district’s handling of the situation.

What parents are saying

Lisa Kensel, the president of the Parent-Teacher Club at Creston School, said it’s up to the district to make things right.

“The safety of the children when they are in this building is their responsibility,” Kensel told KOIN 6 News.

Parent Tobias Shea, whose son is enrolled at Creston, said “there is a root cause that should be addressed.” But he added the lead in the water wasn’t that much of a concern for their family “because Tyler always packs his own water.”

Free blood testing:
–Monday, June 6 4-6 p.m. at Rose City Park School
–Tuesday, June 7 4-8 p.m. at Creston School

The district apologized after allowing students and staff to drink the tainted water even after test results came back.

“I don’t think it was out of malice,” parent Scott Laird told KOIN 6 News. “I think it was more likely that someone thought, ‘Oh, no, we need to take care of this,’ but didn’t necessarily know the proper procedures as outlined by the EPA.

That protocol states water should be shut off at the source pending the re-testing of that fixture. In this case that didn’t happen.

The last time water was tested throughout the school district was 2001. School Board Member Steve Buel questions those protocols.

Bottles of water piled inside Creston School in Portland after lead was found in the drinking water at 2 schools, May 31, 2016 (KOIN)
Bottles of water piled inside Creston School in Portland after lead was found in the drinking water at 2 schools, May 31, 2016 (KOIN)

“The question is, what have we done since then? Did we follow the protocols in all our schools that we should be following for lead contamination of the water of if that’s the case, how come we have it now?” he says.

Kensel is also concerned about the testing protocols. “To know that there weren’t tests for 15 years, comprehensive testing, that was a little disturbing for me.”

“Of course we need to be concerned,” said Heidi Donahue, the sustainability chair at Creston School PTC. “But I don’t think there’s any reason to be alarmed in terms of your children’s health at this point.”

Now with water bottles in the hands of thousands of Portland students, parents hope for systematic change.

“Hopefully this media attention will help do that for every kid in every school in this nation,” Donahue said.

Special meetings

A special school board meeting was held Tuesday evening at Creston. School officials came to address parents’ concerns. About 60 parents were in attendance.

“The board and I have been working really closely together to figure out a plan that is responsive,” Superintendent Carole Smith said.

That meeting took a turn after a Willamette Week article reported that 47 Portland Public Schools tested high for lead in 2010-2012.

Parents asked school officials if they knew then about the contaminated water.

“Why is it that PPS has to be caught by the media before they’re honest with us?” One parent asked.

Smith’s response to the question didn’t sit well with some parents, who said she didn’t really answer the question.

“No she didn’t answer that question,” one parent told KOIN 6 News. “She avoided it.”

“I don’t feel like she was ready to answer that question. And so she didn’t give an answer,” said another parent.

“No I don’t think she did answer the question. Where did those reports go? Cause as a parent I never got them, I never saw them,” another parent told KOIN 6 News.

“Would I expect that I would have had an awareness about that data base? Only if there are problems,” Smith said.

KOIN 6 News asked if Smith considers 47 schools a problem.

“If they’ve gone through a mitigation procedure and used the EPA standard procedure to address those problems — No,” Smith said. “Then it would be they’re doing their job.”

Some impassioned parents are calling for Smith’s resignation.

“I’m focused on figuring out what happened here so that we don’t have it happen again,” Smith said.

Smith also said it’s possible 2 people will be placed on administrative leave.

A community meeting is also scheduled at Rose City Park Wednesday evening.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bottles of water delivered to Creston School in Portland, May 31, 2016 (KOIN)
Bottles of water delivered to Creston School in Portland, May 31, 2016 (KOIN)

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