After years -- maybe decades -- of questions on whether students were drinking lead-contaminated water, New Jersey has moved quickly to put in place new requirements for testing every faucet and drinking fountain of every school.
But with the State Board of Education’s approval of the rules yesterday, there are still some questions as to how this will roll out and what comes next.
The board moved under special allowances yesterday to fast-track the new regulations, requiring every district to have its water tested within 365 days and to make the results public.
The rules are effective as soon as they can be filed administratively, likely within a day, officials said. Under the expedited procedure, there were no public hearings or comment.
Once that first testing is completed, schools will be required to repeat the procedure at least every six years.
“The issue was of the utmost importance,” said Mark Biedron, the board’s president, after the meeting. “We felt it was so important to get it on the books now, so people can start testing right away, and maybe before school starts.”
“There was really no controversy with this,” he said. “This was like, ‘Do it.’”
But no controversy didn’t mean no questions, and the board had several.
One came from Biedron himself: Whether the state’s $10 million in reimbursement for schools would be retroactive to this winter. That is when news first broke of contamination in more than half of Newark’s schools and dozens of other districts rushed to check their own water.
Christie administration officials said the clock starts now on the grants, and those who may have rushed to test their schools in the winter and spring would not be eligible.
But exactly how many districts moved on this remains an open question as well, as the administration said it did no survey of schools.
The capacity of testing companies to handle the sudden load of tests in a state of 3,000 public schools is also unknown. The uncertainty was enough that that administration has built in an extension process for districts to have a little more time to complete the testing in case of delays.
“We just don’t know what the lab capacity is, so we wanted to build in [the extension possibility],” said state Education Commissioner David Hespe after the meeting. “We are thinking many districts are implementing testing protocols already, and as new ones come online, the demand will rise.”
“It’s just us being able to look into the future and looking at what are the possible hurdles here and what can we do to make sure we have some apparatus in place,” he said.
But Hespe stressed it will not be an excuse for districts to put off the work, and he said the $10 million in extra aid will be a “built-in incentive to test early so they can be reimbursed.”
Still, this is not the end of the regulatory process. Under the expedited route, these regulations are effective for only one year, and the State Board will have to go through a more deliberative process over the next year to put permanent rules in place.