PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith announced she will retire earlier than planned, on the same day an independent investigation found multiple reasons why the district failed to provide clean drinking water to its students for years.
Smith said she will retire in October instead of at the end of the 2016-17 school year, but she will use paid time off between now and then.
"Please consider this letter my 90-day notice per my employment contract. I have extensive accumulated leave that I intend to use during that time," she said on July 18.
PPS Board of Education Chair Tim Koehler said interim leadership will be brought in this summer and a national search for a permanent superintendent is underway.
“The Board will double down on its focus to lead the District and make decisions in the best interest of the 48,000 kids we serve and the taxpayers and voters to whom we are accountable,” he said.
Fellow Board Member Steve Buel said the district will be more forthcoming with issues in the future.
"We'll be more concerned now with transparency and not pushing things under the rug," he said. "The rug is gone."
The PPS Board of Education commissioned the law firm Stoll Berne to conduct an independent investigation after elevated lead levels were found at several district schools.
- The investigation found the district lacked clear policies for lead testing and did not see lead in water as a “significant issue” since the last system-wide test in 2001.
- Budgetary constraints, decaying infrastructure, and lack of funds for health and safety issues were contributing factors to why the district did not address lead issues in drinking water.
- The one person who was in charge of maintaining the lead testing database between 2009 and 2014 had no training or oversight. That person, Patrick Wolfe, has since passed away.
- When Andy Fridley took over for Wolfe in 2014, he told investigators the transition involved "Mr. Wolfe providing him with a list of filters that had been installed under Mr. Wolfe's direction but not entered into the database."
- Fridley learned of errors in the database and didn't tell his superiors.
- The lead testing database is "not accurate or reliable" and any records of the district trying to fix the problems "cannot be relied upon."
- Filters that were not certified "lead reducing" were installed at drinking fountains because they were cheaper.
- "Misleading and inaccurate" communication about lead testing on the district's website said water at all schools was safe to drink. That post remained on the district's website through July.
- Former Communications Chief Jon Isaacs knowingly providing incomplete excerpts of the district's water testing database to the Willamette Week.
- Carole Smith and other PPS leaders maintained they did not know about lead issues until late May, but the investigation found an "absence of diligent inquiry by PPS individuals in upper levels of administration hierarchy regarding PPS’s procedures for lead in water testing and remediation after March 2016, when District-wide lead in water testing had been added to the PPS budget and the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief of Staff and the Superintendent were all on notice that lead in water testing was occurring at one or more PPS schools."
“These findings are consistent with what many of us have been speculating and provide an objective perspective based on the facts,” Board Chair Tom Koehler said. “Now we must use this report as a tool to move forward.”
PPS came under fire in May after testing requested by parents revealed lead problems at two elementary schools, yet officials did not follow proper protocols to turn off water or immediately tell parents. Another document surfaced that showed testing found lead issues at dozens of schools between 2010-2012.
The district announced it would conduct lead tests in all PPS buildings this summer. Thirty-one of those tests have been released and all 31 school buildings had some sources of water with lead levels higher than the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion.
Four schools had sources over 5,000 parts per billion, which is classified as hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those schools are Chapman Elementary School, King Elementary School, Meek High School and Jefferson High School.
Twenty schools also had elevated copper levels.
Two employees have been placed on administrative leave amid the investigation. When Smith first announced her retirement, she said her decision was not related to the lead issues.
A bulk of the district's communications team also jumped ship.
The remainder of the test results are expected to be released this week.
The district encouraged students and staff to get tested for lead.
PPS will provide bottled water to all students during the 2016-17 school year.
The district has not yet announced a long-term plan to fix lead issues system-wide but spokeswoman Courtney Westling said there has been discussion about including environmental health and safety improvements as part of a potential November bond.