Newark Superintendent Addresses Lead Levels in Schools

Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf discusses issues surrounding the high levels of lead found in schools' water.

Lead testing results are in on another group of Newark Public School buildings. Add eight more to the 30 already identified with lead levels above what the Environmental Protection Agency considers acceptable. Some detecting levels 10 times the federal threshold. Lead in excess of 15.5 parts per billion was found in drinking fountains and utility sinks in classroom buildings, transportation hubs and athletic facilities. That completes what the district’s calling “priority one” testing. Two more large groups of buildings to go. State appointed Newark School Superintendent Chris Cerf spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams about the issue.

Williams: Thank you for being here.

Cerf: It’s a pleasure to be here as always.

Williams: What constitutes a priority one testing building?

Cerf: This issue came to my attention three weeks ago now and we decided to immediately change course on the practice — it had existed for the past 11 years over the course of three prior superintendents. We immediately shut down water access at schools, we immediately decided that we were going to bring in experts for the EPA and the DEP. We then prioritized our testing regimen and improved upon that testing regimen.

Williams: It wasn’t quite immediately. You learned it on Friday, you took the action on March 9, which I believe was a Wednesday.

Cerf: So actually what happened is that on Friday we got a call from one school indicating discoloration in the water — which may or may not be related to lead by the way. Every year a series of rolling tests were given sometime between December and February. We did not even have those results in. They came in that Friday and over the weekend I was briefed. On Monday and within an hour I had called the mayor, arranged for a press conference, called in the state authorities and directed that the federal authorities be involved. This really was a rather dramatic pivot in our approach to this as a district.

Williams: So, how are you exactly changing? Before they put in a filter they presumably tested or clean or changed the filter from time to time there was a routine maintenance schedule and was it adhered to?

Cerf: Well it’s very simple, what the difference between before and after is. Before, there was a reliance on general directives to change filters, to flush the water at each source, to test every year at 10 difference sites. The change is that I no longer want to rely on general directives. Immediately we said one, we need to go public with this, to talk publicly, to share every result we have as quickly as we have it. Two, to immediately shut off all potable water sources, which we did. And three, to bring in experts.

Williams: Newark Mayor Ras Baraka blames what he calls lack of transparency — on this whole issue — on the state takeover of the school system. Is that fair?

Cerf: Well, first of all, let me pay a compliment to the mayor. He has been incredibly supportive and helpful and managed his communications to his city about this with tremendous balance and poise. So I personally have been grateful for that. On that one point, we have a respectful disagreement. I think that what has happened since Flint, and again our levels were nowhere near comparable to Flint, there has been an elevation of consciousness. When you go back to superintendents — not just my immediate predecessor but to prior superintendents — I don’t believe that they had anything but the best interest of children at heart and I don’t believe their perspective towards this was influenced by whether they were a state appointed superintendent or not.

Williams: The president of the Newark Teachers Union, John Abeigon, released a photo that he says illustrates water filters weren’t being changed regularly, some as far back as 2012. You’ve called what he said irresponsible. Why?

Cerf: I think it is irresponsible. First of all, if you know Mr. Abeigon, he rarely passes on an opportunity to make trouble. This was a moment where everyone in the city needed to stand together and organize and respond and address the community in a responsible way. He chose to be alarmist and to try and throw gasoline on fires instead of the opposite. But the specific allegations, here’s what we know: over the last many years I have personally had a chance to look at purchase orders for approximately 7,000 filters, there are thousands of work orders relating to it. We have confirmed by interviewing the experts that the date on a casing to a filter does not necessarily correspond to the date a filter was repaired. So I don’t think his decision to do that was appropriate. He failed, by the way, to articulate that what he was talking about were practices that predated me. He tried to make it about me. I thought that was demonstrably incorrect.

Williams: All right Chris Cerf, thank you for being here. We should tell you that the Hoboken school system has just announced it’s hired an independent company contractor to conduct tests for lead contamination there, but only out of an abundance of caution.

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