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Schools could get $5 million to pay for lead testing

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Hillsboro Schools continue to publish results of lead testing.


JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland schools used bottled water after eleveated levels of lead were found in some schools' water. The fallout of the scandal has lead schools across the state to begin testing.Public schools could receive up to $5 million to help pay for the cost of testing for lead in campus drinking water, under a proposal lawmakers will are considering this week.

The proposal would set up a fund administered by the Oregon Department of Education. School districts could submit invoices to request reimbursement for costs associated with lead testing between March and December of this year.

The Legislative Fiscal Office has recommended that the Emergency Board approve $5 million as a placeholder until state education officials gain a better sense of how much school districts will request for reimbursement.

Last summer, the Oregon Health Authority and the education department asked districts to test for lead in school water supplies following widespread media coverage of a scandal in Portland Public Schools over lead in drinking water that went unreported.

The education department could submit a revised financial request to the emergency board in December, if requests exceed $5 million, said Doug Wilson, a legislative fiscal analyst.

"It's really a signal to districts that we are putting money aside for lead testing," Wilson said of the recommendation.

In Hillsboro, the district contracted with Portland-based PBS Engineering and Environmental Inc. to test every water source within its schools, including more than 2,800 faucets, drinking fountains, hoses and shower heads, according to the district.

To date, Hillsboro School District has spent just under $150,000 on tests, according to Beth Graser, district spokeswoman, and plans to spend an additional $50,000 to $60,000 in new fixtures and other replacements depending on test results.

The city of Hillsboro has agreed to help the district with the cost of testing, kicking in about $40,000, Graser said.

“We would certainly welcome any opportunity to receive reimbursement for our costs related to lead testing and mitigation,” Graser said.

Results from Hillsboro's tests have been released slowly, as the district gets them, Graser said. Results are being posted on the district’s website.

“Because many other school districts and public facilities (are also testing) the same thing, the labs have been a bit overwhelmed and results are coming in one-by-one as they are processed,” the district wrote on its website this week.

As results come in, the district has said it plans to alert parents, principals and building administrators about the findings at individual schools and address any problems that may arise.

So far, results from two schools, Jackson and Lenox elementary, have come back clean after two tests. A third, Brown Middle School, found higher than recommended concentrations in a handful of sinks, showerheads and drinking fountains. The district has said that all the identified water sources have been shut off and will be replaced. The district’s facilities department is investigating the cause of lead contamination, the district said, and will replace the necessary equipment before bringing the faucet and fountains back online.


An expensive problem

Lawmakers pledged to provide some kind of financial assistance to districts after the state asked districts to test its water. The agencies recommended that schools identify sources of lead, stop access, communicate results to staff, students, parents and the community and mitigate and repair the problem.

The Oregon Association of School Business Officials conducted a survey of school districts this summer to try to estimate the cost of testing. About 100 districts, representing about half of the state student population, responded. The $5 million figure is roughly based on those districts' responses, Wilson said.

That amount equates to about $35 for each lab test, including testing and a small amount to defray the cost of collection, he said. The amount doesn't account for any expenses associated with mitigation of lead contamination.

In August, the state Board of Education — at the behest of Gov. Kate Brown — approved a rule that requires school districts to submit a plan for testing for lead in water and other toxins in school environments and to report any results to the public, but the rule doesn't require actual testing. 

State agencies, including the education department and the Oregon Health Authority, have no authority to force school districts to test for lead in water, but that could change next year. Lawmakers are considering legislation during the 2017 session that would require districts to test for lead in water and possibly other toxins, said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland. Dembrow and Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, spearheaded legislation in 2015 that required districts to test for radon.

"At that time, we focused on radon because to be honest, we assumed there was testing already happening for lead and other things, but radon seemed like something people were just beginning to become familiar with."

"As we come to a better understanding of the multiple toxins in schools, we need to expand that," he added.

New York recently enacted a law requiring schools to test for lead by the end of October, report results to the public and develop a plan for reducing exposure to the toxin, the Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office reported.

— Geoff Pursinger contributed to this report