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A Very Bad Week for Newark’s Public Schools Manages to Get Worse

Newark teachers union releases 2014 district memo alerting schools to possible lead contamination in water

Bard School Newark
Newark’s Bard High School Early College had the highest levels of lead in its water of any of the contaminated schools, 558 parts per billion (ppb).

Newark schools made headlines twice this week in ways district leaders probably wished they hadn’t.

First came Gov. Chris Christie’s political provocations on his visit to the Alexander Street facility, now being used for one of the city’s surging charter schools.

It was there that Christie badgered Mayor Ras Baraka to stop speaking out against the growth of charter schools, saying such talk could imperil Newark’s getting back local control of its public schools.

But while that dialogue was playing out, district officials had already been alerted to elevated lead levels in 30 schools, levels high enough that the state Department of Environmental Protection and now the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration were brought in.

It launched a week of crisis management for the district -- including a midweek press conference and unprecedented bottled water deliveries -- followed by anxiety among families and the public regarding possible health hazards.

It didn’t end there. Yesterday brought questions as to whether the district knew about the potential hazards before the most recent screening, which was taken in December.

The Newark Teachers Union released a 2014 memo from the district that called on schools to flush their drinking and cooking water daily basis to minimize lead contamination. It also instructed them to tell students to let water fountains run 30 seconds before drinking.

“Who allowed children to drink this water and for how long?” said John Abeigon, president of the NTU. “This is a serious question that must be answered by federal authorities.

“Lead levels are tested regularly and results shared with administrators who are trained to read and respond to the results. What happened here? Who received the results over the last several years and what did they do with them?”

State-appointed school superintendent Chris Cerf and the district did not respond to the claims or provide any data about past readings.

Instead, it released a lengthy statement that officials were working with the state DEP to resolve the issues, and said it had shared with the DEP information about past monitoring but did not indicate what it revealed.

“We have shared past records related to water-quality testing with DEP through our contracted laboratory and are working in cooperation with them to compile that information and review it,” the district said.

The statement outlined a number of steps taken to deal with the situation, including a new water-monitoring system for the schools and the availability of blood tests for families.

“Ensuring the health and wellbeing of our students in the immediate days and weeks has been, and will continue to be the primary driver in our decision to bring drinking water into 30 schools,” the statement read.

“This will continue to be our number one priority in the days ahead.”

The lead-level problem comes at a particularly bad time for the district. Cerf is struggling to fill a deep budget hole, and the district will not be able to easily afford infrastructure repairs and replacements.

Further, state control of the district is a flash point, and Christie’s calling out Baraka on Monday did nothing to defuse the situation.

Still, Baraka on Wednesday stood with Cerf -- the state’s former commissioner and Christie-appointed superintendent -- in announcing the water problem, and the two pledged their offices would work closely together.

“We are confident that with the help of the Mayor’s Office and community that we will have enough water to meet the demands of all our schools until we have finished retesting and resolved this problem,” the district’s statement read.

Advocates in the community weren’t so sure this could be easily resolved, but they first asked that the district tell the public all it knows.

Wilhemina Holder, a longtime activist, said she heard schools not on the initial list were informed that they should be providing bottled water as well.

“If that’s the case, what about others?” she said. “Why are we only getting half the story?”

And she said the fact the district is asking for donations of water speaks volumes to the state of affairs.

“This is the last thing we need,” she said. “The money is just not there. And we’re actually asking for donation.”

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