Education

Roster of schools with lead-tainted taps rises to 13; district reveals testing plans

Frank Reil, a plumber with the Tacoma School District, tests the water Thursday after installing a new faucet and drinking fountain in the school library at Whittier Elementary.
Frank Reil, a plumber with the Tacoma School District, tests the water Thursday after installing a new faucet and drinking fountain in the school library at Whittier Elementary. dkoepfler@thenewstribune.com

Angry parents were a no-show at Thursday night’s Tacoma School Board meeting as district officials rolled out a five-tiered plan for coping with high levels of lead in school drinking water.

The discovery of one additional school with higher than acceptable test results, announced late Thursday — Stanley Elementary — brings the total so far to 13 schools in the city that have registered high lead levels in water testing. A total of 22 schools have been tested, some as long ago as May 2015, some earlier and others more recently. Of those 22, nine showed no fixtures spewing lead content above the school district’s newly established standard of 15 parts per billion.

There are 35 elementary schools in the school district. No middle or high schools had been tested.

Parents have been asking questions and posting pointed messages directed at the school district all week on social media.

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Many wondered how test records that showed lead problems in all those schools could have remained hidden. They also wanted to know whether the school district would pay for blood testing for children at the affected schools. The district said it will not. Instead, officials urged parents or employees concerned about lead levels to see their private health care providers.

The board had prepared for an overflow crowd. TV cameras were ready to roll on outraged faces. But when board President Karen Vialle asked for public comment, no one stood up to talk about lead in the water.

Instead, district spokesman Dan Voelpel calmly reviewed information that was also posted to the school district website just before the meeting began.

He outlined a plan for how the district will deal with water problems. The goal is to conduct new tests at every Tacoma district school within the next 30 days, and possibly sooner. Voelpel said the district has found additional companies to assist in testing and lab analysis of water samples.

If more samples turn up with levels over 15 ppb, the district promises to investigate the source of the tainted water, make repairs, then re-test to ensure the water is clear.

Schools will be tested in five groupings, with the 13 schools already identified with problem water going first. Next, the district plans to test its facilities that house preschools and other sites for early learners, beginning with the oldest buildings first. Third, all middle and high schools, high school athletic facilities and other spaces that regularly contain students will be tested.

Facilities like offices and other spaces primarily occupied by adults will come next. Finally, the district is asking the owners of buildings where it rents space for students, such as the downtown Post Office building that houses part of the School of the Arts, to voluntarily commit to testing.

Testing is voluntary on the part of school districts in Washington. Tacoma began planning for its testing program in 2012, and testing began in 2013, with a portion of the district’s elementary buildings tested each year. Voelpel said that in keeping with health recommendations, the district began testing buildings that house its youngest students.

New water samples were already collected this week at schools identified with problems from earlier tests. Water samples will continue to be collected at schools listed in each of the tiers.

An estimated 56 school buildings are in the Tacoma School District. Elementary schools can contain more than 50 water outlets, while big high school campuses may have several hundred.

“We are going to test every fixture and immediately address issues,” Superintendent Carla Santorno said. She also said the school district is developing a plan for regular testing in the future, and is investigating why previous tests were never acted on.

“This board is deeply concerned,” Vialle added.

Jodi Clawson, a parent who attended the meeting but didn’t address the school board, said she came to gain a better understanding of what was happening. Her child attends Point Defiance Elementary, which is one of the 13 schools with reported problems.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

Schools on the list

Schools with drinking water restrictions

Birney; Point Defiance; DeLong; Madison; Manitou Park; Mann; Reed; Stanley; Whitman;

Whittier; Browns Point; Downing and Larchmont

Schools without restrictions

Arlington; Crescent Heights; Grant; Franklin; Blix; Boze; Bryant; Edison and Fawcett

Source: Tacoma Public Schools

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