The school superintendent in Portland, Oregon, has resigned amid a widening scandal, after news broke that the district waited months to tell the public that drinking water at two elementary schools had tested positive for lead.
Even school employees only learned about the elevated lead levels at Creston and Rose City Park when a local newspaper ran an exposé.
“What set all of us off initially was the cover-up,” said Belinda Reagan, president of the union that represents school clerical staff. “They lied about it. They knew. That’s a notorious manner of handling things in this district. They are not forthcoming.”
The first two schools were just the tip of the iceberg. “Now we are finding out, as they are testing more schools, that all of them have the issues,” Reagan said.
The four unions representing teachers, custodians, and clerical employees quickly united to put pressure on the district — and to find out how this problem went unfixed for so long. They’re demanding testing of all schools, safety protection for students and employees, and a role in the plan to make schools safe by the fall.
Periodic lead testing showed the presence of lead in Portland schools’ drinking water back in 2001. Between 2010 and 2012, the district found unsafe levels of lead in 47 schools.
Since then, parents and employees had assumed the district was following protocol — including installing and replacing water filters, and where needed, posting signs warning people not to drink the water. It turns out that wasn’t true.
The superintendent has claimed she was unaware of the problem. She fired two managers overseeing school maintenance.
But Portland Association of Teachers Vice President Elizabeth Thiel said it’s been a struggle just to find out who was really responsible for overseeing building safety. “It feels like a system that has been built in order to divert attention from problems, and to dead-end problems, instead of solving them,” she said.
Part of the problem, said outgoing PAT President Gwen Sullivan, is that over the years the district has cut back and outsourced its maintenance staff, getting rid of the workers who had “historic knowledge” of the buildings — while administration passed the buck on the ongoing problems.
“Nobody cared about the buildings,” Sullivan said. “Nobody took ownership.”
PAT leaders joined with the other school-employee unions — Service Employees (SEIU) Local 503, a council of trades unions, and the Portland Federation of School Professionals (AFT) Local 111 — to make sure the problems don’t fall through the cracks again.
At the June school board meeting, the presidents of the four unions together announced their demands, including that the district pay the cost for any employee who chooses to be tested for lead poisoning, and that it share its plan to ensure schools are safe by the end of the summer.
One demand the unions quickly won was an independent investigation. Results were announced July 18, concluding that higher-ups had shown an “absence of diligent inquiry” on lead safety protocols.
The day the report came out, the superintendent announced her resignation.
A National Crisis
The revelation of poisoned drinking water citywide in Flint, Michigan, has sparked national outrage — and concerns about unsafe levels of lead in many other cities.
In Newark, New Jersey, more than 30 schools have tested positive for high levels of lead. A study showed administrators knew about the unsafe lead levels for six years. In Chicago, districtwide testing has identified 26 schools with unsafe lead levels.
In Baltimore, the water has been shut off for 10 years in nearly all the public schools. The district has so far opted to spend a half-million dollars a year on bottled water rather than the millions it would take to overhaul the plumbing.
While lead exposure is harmful even to adults, for children it can cause permanent brain damage — leading to lower IQ, slowed development, and learning and behavior problems.
In Portland, at first the district paid for students to be tested, but resisted covering employees, even at the schools with confirmed lead problems. It took six weeks of criticism from workers, parents, and the public before the district relented. Two teachers tested positive, increasing the pressure, although it’s not confirmed whether their exposures came from school property.
The board ultimately agreed to allocate $250,000 for lead testing, and sent a letter notifying all employees that they would be covered.
Cleanup Takes Money
Like Baltimore, for the 2016-2017 school year Portland will purchase bottled water, an estimated 1.1 million bottles for drinking and food preparation.
But Portland teachers, who in 2014 came to the brink of a strike to bring down class sizes and reduce workload, don’t want to see those improvements lost because the district redirects funds to address the lead crisis.
“I hope it would not be pitted against the education that kids need,” Thiel said. “If it comes down to ‘Do you want education or safe classrooms,’ we need both.”
A comprehensive overhaul of Oregon’s school buildings will be costly. Lead contamination is a problem in schools across the state, with an estimated cleanup cost of $7.5 billion, according to the union-led coalition Our Oregon.
Luckily, Portland teachers already had their eye on an additional revenue source. “Our big thing all this last year is the corporate tax on the ballot,” Sullivan said.
The union is part of the coalition “A Better Oregon,” which gathered 60,000 signatures to put Measure 97 before voters this November. The initiative would increase taxes on out-of-state corporations, generating $6 billion for schools, senior care, and health care.
Incoming PAT President Suzanne Cohen said the lead crisis has driven home the need for more funding for staffing and infrastructure. “We are realizing how many people in education are being asked to do more with less,” she said.
Besides money, fixing the problem in Portland schools will take continued pressure from the unions. “You are not starting school,” Sullivan said, “until there is a comprehensive plan that students and schools are safe.”
“When we stand united like that and face the school board, they have to listen,” Reagan said of the four unions’ joint demands. “We need more of that.”
New book from Labor Notes: How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers tells how activists transformed their union and gave members hope. “A beacon to all rank-and-file members on how to bring democracy to their locals.” Buy one today, only $15.