The Tacoma School Board Thursday night fired the manager accused by the school district of failing to act on year-old reports of high lead levels in school water.
The board voted 3-1 to accept a personnel report that contained the recommendation to fire Ken Wilson, the district’s safety and environmental health manager.
Wilson, who has worked for Tacoma Public Schools since 2002 and has held his current position since 2006, was placed on administrative leave with pay April 25. That move followed the school district’s discovery that high lead levels had been reported in some schools based on water tests conducted last year.
In a letter sent to Wilson dated May 10, Superintendent Carla Santorno said Wilson had received water testing reports in June 2015 for Mann and Reed elementary schools that showed “concerning levels of lead.” One report showed a fixture at Reed registered lead levels at 2,330 parts per billion (ppb), and one at Mann hit 784 ppb. The Environmental Protection Agency threshold for school drinking water is 20 ppb.
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Santorno’s letter said Wilson maintained the 2015 records in his files, “but did not take any steps to address the results of concern prior to April 22, 2016.”
That is the day The News Tribune made a public records request for the water testing reports.
Wilson failed to re-test or remedy concerns.
Superintendent Carla Santorno
Wilson’s attorney, Mary Ruth Mann of Seattle, said Wilson did not see the “outlier” results from Mann and Reed because they were not in the email reports that he received from the outside lab that analyzed school water tests. Rather, they were in paper records that came with the lab’s invoice for payment, she said.
Mann said Wilson found them only when he was gathering documents for the April 22 records request. She said he immediately discussed them with supervisors that day, and on the three following days. She said Wilson spent time over the weekend of April 23-24 personally re-sampling water at both Mann and Reed and turned the samples over to a lab.
Santorno’s letter also said Wilson had reports in his files about high lead levels in other schools’ water dating from 2010, but that he failed to “re-test or remedy concerns, and/or to alert anyone else of concerning test results.”
Mann said Wilson “for years has re-tested and remediated any lead levels reported to him in excess of the EPA recommended limits.”
But district general counsel Shannon McMinimee said Thursday that the district could not find any evidence that he had alerted his supervisor, district Chief Operating Officer Steve Murakami, about high lead levels prior to April 22. She also said that another district employee, Stephen Story, who interacted regularly with Wilson, also said the reports weren’t brought to his attention. She said the district could not tell whether Wilson had issued periodic reports on the water testing program.
“We don’t know if he got them and filed them without reading them, or if he read them and chose not to do anything,” McMinimee said.
There are other levels of punishment that can be used that would be more appropriate.
Board member Debbie Winskill
Santorno’s letter said that Wilson’s failure to act “put staff, students and members of the public at risk.”
A district review eventually showed high lead levels in more than a dozen Tacoma schools. The district has since launched a program to re-test those schools and the rest in the district by the end of this month. Results of the new tests are being reported on the school district website.
McMinimee said the whole episode will likely cost the school district “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” including the cost for expedited testing.
Board member Debbie Winskill was the single vote against firing Wilson on Thursday. Board President Karen Vialle and members Scott Heinze and Catherine Ushka voted to let him go. Board member Andrea Cobb was not at the meeting.
Winskill said in a post-meeting interview that she did not feel Wilson’s actions rose to the level of termination.
“There are other levels of punishment that can be used that would be more appropriate,” Winskill said.
Mann said Wilson gave the district the testing records that eventually became public. She said he gave the records to Murakami on April 25. That same day, Wilson was placed on administrative leave and barred from reviewing his email or checking his work computer, Mann said. He was also forbidden to talk to other employees about the issue.
“He cannot say whether the same documents, or all the documents which he gathered, were produced,” Mann said.
McMinimee said that if Wilson had evidence he had told anyone about the high lead levels, “he had an opportunity to tell us.” She said the district “had to rely on existing records.”
Mann said she had been told that the school district would conduct an investigation into what happened. “But we have seen no evidence of that,” she added.
McMinimee said the district did not hire an outside investigator “because it became pretty clear what had happened when we reviewed the documents.”
The district pressed its rush to judgment to pin blame on Wilson.
Wilson’s attorney, Mary Ruth Mann
Mann said her client is distraught, and that he has been under a doctor’s care and restricted from work activities. She said Wilson, 58, had asked for medical leave, and she had asked to reschedule the procedural meeting with him that the district wanted to conduct last week.
“They proceeded with termination without giving him an opportunity to respond or prepare,” Mann said. “The district pressed its rush to judgment to pin blame on Wilson.”
But an email from McMinimee to Mann, obtained through a public records request, showed the district had invited Wilson to submit information in writing if he chose not to attend the meeting.
McMinimee emphasized that Wilson was not fired because he was claiming a medical disability, but because of his “failure to fulfill a critical, essential job function.”
Wilson was not at the Thursday board meeting, but his wife, Lorraine, was. During public comment time, she started to address the school board on her husband’s behalf, but was told by McMinimee that the board did not take public comment on personnel matters.
Wilson’s wife shared the prepared statement she had intended to read to the board with The News Tribune. In it, she said, “We have asked the district for extensions of time to respond to the allegations that are misleading and untrue about my husband.
“There is no reason for the district to rush this through and decide this without giving my husband a fair hearing, time to recover and respond, and access to the records he needs to prepare and document his response.”
Mann has filed public records requests for her client’s hard drive and other documents. District officials say they are working to provide the information.