A week after it was revealed that lead was tainting the water of public schools in Newark, New Jersey, school officials continue to remain silent about how long and at what levels lead has been present in the drinking water of the city's schools. And, like in Flint, Michigan, members of the public, including Newark's teachers union, are questioning the role of state-appointed managers.
Last week, the school district shipped in bottled water and posting 'Do not drink' notices on taps and fountains — acting within three days of receiving test results showing unsafe levels lead in 30 of its 66 schools. State-appointed superintendent Chris Cerf emphasized in a press conference that his administration was responding urgently to the recent testing — but worries about lead in school water run much deeper than originally revealed.
Yesterday, the state-managed school district announced that it would conduct an investigation of how consistently it had implemented policies put in place to address concerns with lead contamination dating back to 2004.
"District leadership has begun a comprehensive and in-depth internal review of past data, protocols, and implementation. This includes school level actions, such as the following of filter replacement protocols," the Cerf administration said. It's statement came shortly after VICE News reported on photographs showing lead filters marked with dates far past their six-month expiry.
"This review will help us better understand to what extent protocols were followed, and to specifically identify what has been done in each school to mitigate elevated lead levels in schools previously," reads the statement.
For years, Newark has been at the center of a struggle to improve schools across the United States that are widely perceived as failing students in poor urban communities disproportionately composed of people of color. For at least some of this time students in the struggling school district were being exposed to lead — which, even in small amounts, can impair mental function and cause developmental disorders — but how many and for how long remains unclear.
The school system has confirmed that it has lead testing records going back to 2012 and that they were reviewed by school administrators. The district said these results will be made public this week and a district spokesperson said that there will be a public announcement on Wednesday.
Yesterday, the Cerf administration emphasized that only 9 percent of samples from the last round of testing showed lead above the US Environmental Protection Agency's "action threshold" of 15 parts per billion. Whether testing was conducted prior to 2012 remains unknown, although district documents instructing the regular changing of lead filters, flushing of school water systems, and other lead abatement measures date back to at least 2007.
While parents and students are left wondering about the water, the issue has escalated the old political grudge match between the Newark Teachers Union and proponents of charter schools in the state-run district and administration of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
In an email today to New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe, the union repeated a call for the resignation of Newark's superintendent. "Chris Cerf has admitted knowing there was a health hazard to students and staff yet chose to conceal it from the public," alleged union president John Abeigon.
Cerf is the former state Commissioner of Education and only took the helm in Newark last July, following the resignation of embattled superintendent Cami Anderson, who was appointed by Christie in 2011. In a statement yesterday, the district accused the union of "politiciz[ing] the issue by spreading misinformation and allegations."
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker told radio station WNYC yesterday that he was unaware of concerns over lead in the schools while Newark mayor from 2006 to 2013.
"Lead in our drinking water is a national issue that requires a robust response from every level of government," the Democratic Senator, who worked closely with both Christie and Anderson in their efforts to reform and reorganize Newark schools, said to VICE News.
Yesterday, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill that lowers the state's definition of "elevated blood lead level" by half. Both houses of the state legislature also overwhelmingly passed a bill that would grant $10 million of additional funding to the state's Lead Hazard Control Assistance Fund.
The bill must be approved by Governor Christie, who in January refused to sign the same measure into law despite saying he was not philosophically opposed to it. "First of all this has been an over-dramatized issue," Christie told NJ Spotlight on March 7, the same day Newark water tests came back positive for lead.
"The failure to change filters and do proper maintenance shows that we need a long-term fix to this problem," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "The concerns we have is that there have been cut backs in Newark schools to save money by the managers appointed by Christie."
A spokesperson for Christie — who was out of state yesterday, as he has been for the majority of the last year, campaigning with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — did not respond to emailed questions about the situation in Newark.
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg