Politics & Government

Lawmakers debate: Should the state pay for lead testing in all of its K-12 schools?

Donna McNeal, of Orion Environmental Services, collects a water sample from a classroom drinking fountain for lead testing at Fawcett Elementary School in Tacoma in 2016. After Tacoma Public Schools revealed last year that multiple elementary schools tested positive for lead in the drinking water The Associated Press asked all Washington school districts plus tribal districts whether they test for lead.
Donna McNeal, of Orion Environmental Services, collects a water sample from a classroom drinking fountain for lead testing at Fawcett Elementary School in Tacoma in 2016. After Tacoma Public Schools revealed last year that multiple elementary schools tested positive for lead in the drinking water The Associated Press asked all Washington school districts plus tribal districts whether they test for lead. AP

Washington’s state lawmakers are divided on whether public schools that regularly test their drinking water for lead should do it entirely on the state’s dime.

Currently, public schools are not required to test their drinking water for lead, and districts must foot the bill if they choose to do so. As a result, not all of them test for lead, leaving some parents in the dark on whether their child’s drinking water contains the toxin.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature say it’s the state’s responsibility to pay for regular testing. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s two-year budget proposal included $3.5 million for lead testing across the state on a three-year cycle, beginning with older schools.

Republican leadership has not committed to paying for every school district to test, instead saying districts should bear at least some of the costs.

The GOP-led Senate’s top budget writer, Sen. John Braun of Centralia, said the state should prioritize paying for testing in “buildings with the highest risk” of lead. He has asked for more information from school districts on who is testing to determine where those schools are.

“We don’t want to just spread the money around and hope for the best,” Braun said in an interview.

Lead in school water became a concern last spring when Tacoma schools reported high levels at more than a dozen elementary schools. The district has since taken steps to remove faucets and other fixtures that contained lead and to retest all schools in the district.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning because their rapidly growing bodies absorb more lead than adults, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the wake of the Tacoma news, The Associated Press asked all 295 school districts plus tribal districts if they test for lead in drinking water. Of the 174 that responded, close to 40 percent said they had not been testing drinking water for lead.

Most large, well-funded districts tested for lead, while many small ones didn’t.

Leading Democrats say it’s on the state to ensure that gap is closed.

House Democratic Majority Leader Pat Sullivan told media last week that while Democrats are still “working through the details” of how to do so, it’s a priority to pay for districts to test lead in their drinking water.

Sullivan, who lives in Covington, said the issue hits home for him because he grew up in Flint, Michigan, which has faced devastating problems since 2014 from lead in the city’s drinking water.

“Our hope is that by the end of this session, we’re going to be able to provide the resources to ensure that we’re actually doing the testing, but also doing the replacement of those pipes in those systems that need to be replaced,” he said.

Some Democrats have been pushing legislation aimed at requiring lead testing in schools and replacing lead pipes around the state.

State Rep. Jessyn Farrell, a Seattle Democrat who is sponsoring a bill to upgrade water systems, said money from the state’s public works assistance account could be used to pay for at least some of that work. The account helps support local infrastructure projects, but its money has been transferred away in the past to help pay for other budget priorities.

Top lawmakers from both parties emphasized they expect the state’s capital budget — which pays for construction projects — to contain more money for school renovations that can replace a common source of lead: old water pipes and fixtures.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler told reporters last week that “we’ll be looking at this in a variety of hosts,” among them money in the capital budget for renovations, funding in the state’s operating budget for prioritized testing, and grants for small schools to do renovations.

Still, he said “local school districts should take some responsibility, too,” in ensuring lead-free water.

While House Speaker Frank Chopp has said paying for lead-free water is “part of basic education,” he signaled he is open to compromise on the issue.

“I think it’s generally a state responsibility, but we’re for whatever works in that particular case,” the Seattle Democrat said at a weekly media availability.

At least two other states now require schools to test their drinking water for lead: Illinois and New Jersey.

Schools districts in Illinois are paying for the testing while New Jersey public schools can seek reimbursement from the state. Both adopted the new rules in the last year.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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