PORTLAND, Ore. – Wednesday marked back-to-school day for most Portland Public Schools students, and the second year in a row that they won’t be allowed to drink out of faucets due to lead issues district-wide.
But those issues will be addressed at 15 schools starting Friday, with the first round of fixture replacements.
PPS board member Amy Kohnstamm explained that the school district waited until kids returned to school to start fixture replacements because the district spent the summer lining out bids from contractors, following the historic $790 million bond measure passing in May.
PPS did complete some critical work on lead in water this summer, Kohnstamm said. Cafeterias in all schools are now able to use water faucets for food preparation, after many tested above EPA standards for lead and copper contamination.
“The first step was really to do a comprehensive analysis of all of the health and safety needs, which we finished mid-spring," she explained. "Then go to the voters with the bond, which thankfully passed. Then there was a huge push to get the water faucets working in the cafeterias so that they weren’t having to get prepackaged foods and things like that. All of that work got accomplished through the summer. Then we went through the contracting process to get the labor on board to do the water fixes.
“We just passed the bond in May. Here we are in September and we’re getting to work," she said.
Kohnstamm said the district also prioritized lead paint remediation this summer, which posed a greater risk to student health.
Now, the district begins the first of multiple waves of fixture replacements at schools district-wide.
On Friday afternoon, plumbers will begin replacing fixtures starting with Astor Elementary. Fifteen schools in total are in the first wave of buildings getting fixtures replaced, which will take about six weeks. Also on the immediate docket are Lewis, Woodstock, Chapman, Skyline, West Sylvan, Atkinson, Richmond, Rose City Park, Sacajawea, Beverly Cleary/Fernwood, Applegate, Chief Joseph, Meek, and Hayhurst.
That work will take place during evenings and weekends.
PPS spokesman Dave Northfield said the initial 15 schools were chosen based on multiple factors. The district prioritized schools serving younger children and whether work could be done with minimal disruption. District leaders also tried to address schools in each high-school cluster.
These first fixture replacements will not include classroom sinks and drinking fountains, which will remain closed.
The second round of replacements at 15 more schools will likely start in October. PPS has not yet released that list.
In all, some fixtures will be replaced at every PPS school, the district said. PPS hopes to replace most of the problematic fixtures by the end of the school year.
Northfield said once the fixtures are replaced, they will be tested for lead again. If levels remain high, PPS plans to take further actions, which could include pipe replacements.
PPS has not released a set timeline for when kids will be able to drink out of water faucets again.
The funds for the lead fixes come from the historic $790 million PPS school bond Portland passed in May 2017. About $28.5 million of those funds will be used specifically to address lead and copper issues in water. In total, $150 million from the bond will address health and safety issues district-wide, including lead in water and paint, radon, asbestos, some roof replacements, and safety and security upgrades. The rest will go toward rebuilding four aging schools.
Tests in the summer of 2016 revealed that all but one of PPS’ 97 school buildings had at least one location where lead levels in water exceeded safety standards. In some schools, lead levels were higher than levels found in Flint, Michigan. Seventy-three buildings also had high copper levels.
Documents showed some PPS leaders knew about the issues for years. Former superintendent Carole Smith retired early last year amid the lead scandal. Earlier this summer, PPS announced that San Francisco Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero was chosen as the new district superintendent.
“As I'm learning about those details I want to make sure we have a clear and transparent process. The community should hold us accountable as a school system for making sure their children when they go to the water faucet that that’s not any kind of a concern,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero’s hiring followed the leadership of two interim superintendents. A previous finalist, Donyall Dickey, was initially expected to become superintendent but dropped out, after PPS said “it was not the best fit.”
The new superintendent was in Portland for the first day of school. Guerrero officially starts his new job Oct. 2.
“Then you can immediately hold me accountable, starting Tuesday. Excitement is in the air, it’s a time of optimism,” said Guerrero.