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Beyond Recognizing the Problem, Paying to Purify Drinking Water in NJ Schools

Parents, educators, teachers, and lawmakers start coming to terms with a situation that’s probably far more complex than anyone suspects

Rose Accerra, president-elect of the New Jersey PTA
Rose Accerra, president-elect of the New Jersey PTA

The topic of testing for lead in the water of New Jersey’s schools drew a big showing of political support yesterday, but ironically the discussion was as much about what’s not in the proposed law as what is.

The state’s Senate Democratic leadership hosted a roundtable in the State House to call for a bill that would mandate twice-a-year testing of all water outlets in Garden State schools.

Leading the charge was state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who has made this issue and expanded preschool core components of his education agenda this year. (He planned a preschool roundtable later in the morning.)

“It’s a crisis in the state right now,” Sweeney said to open the meeting, held in a Statehouse conference room. “Our children are drinking water that might not be safe. And the problem of not knowing is the biggest problem.”

Many of the state’s key school groups were on hand to speak in favor of the measure, from the teachers unions to the school boards and administrators associations.

But one after another also acknowledged that the bill is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the need and the cost -- and the Democrats have few answers at this point when it comes to funding.

Several said testing is critical, as is remediation when problems are found. Others wondered out loud about the expense of testing and upgrades in 3,000 schools statewide, not to mention an estimated 4,000 early-childhood centers not covered in the bill.

And the challenges remain the most dire in homes with peeling lead paint, widely seen as the biggest threat to the youngest, most susceptible children.

“While the testing in schools is important and we support that testing, we don’t want to forget infants and toddlers are the most impacted by elevated lead levels,” said Mary Coogan, assistant director of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “And many are still at home and preschools, some of which are in school buildings and some of which in community agencies.”

The political push comes in reaction to revelations last month that the water in more than half of Newark schools exhibited elevated lead levels, high enough to prompt the district to shut off the drinking water and provide alternative sources.

Released yesterday, the bill -- sponsored by Sweeney and state Sens. Ronald Rice Sr. and Teresa Ruiz (both D-Essex) -- would provide $3 million for testing statewide, as well as another $20 million in diverted funds for water filters and other immediate remedies.

But this is hardly unique to Newark; districts as disparate as Paterson and Hamilton have both reported at least some elevated levels.

Rose Acerra, the president-elect of the New Jersey PTA, was incredulous about districts not being forthcoming with the results. She said PTA leaders in West Orange approached the administration in that district, and found there were elevated lead levels in two schools, but administrators would not say which schools.

“As parents, this is not acceptable, this is not what we sign up for,” she said. “New Jersey PTA was upset that our schools are not even mandated to test, and once they do find a problem, they don’t make it transparent.”

Much of the public attention has been on the even-higher lead levels in schools in Flint, MI, and experts have cautioned Newark’s situation does not approach that. But several said yesterday that is hardly a reason not to act.

”We cannot afford to make the same mistake as Flint, we must learn from Flint and take action,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, chief lobbyist of the New Jersey Education Association.

And others said that while the resources needed to remediate the problems are the next question, the state and its schools need to know the depth of the problem first. Most districts test the water coming in, according to an official of the state’s school boards association, but the next step is testing inside individual schools where problems arise with aging pipes and outlets.

“We have an issue of not knowing what we don’t know, and this legislation to allow the resources to at least do the testing to find out what are problems is huge,” said Michael Vrancik, governmental relations director for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

But Vrancik said what happens next may be the harder challenge. “There is a second part to this,” he said.

Sweeney said he was well aware of the depth of the challenge, not to mention just passing the bill. While he said he has the votes among Democrats and Republicans, Gov. Chris Christie has questioned whether the full testing is required or a more measured and strategic approach is in order.

Sweeney said he was confident he could win the governor’s support. His appearance with Christie a few hours later to announce a new state Supreme Court justice could be a good sign.

“I’ve had some conversation with the governor, and we all recognize there is an issue,” Sweeney said afterward. “The big question is how much will it cost.”

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