On Independence Day, 2013, with kids gone for the summer, a series of messages were sent to staff members at the Miller Street School in Newark, New Jersey, reminding them to do a job vital to ensuring the health and safety of the school's students — changing filters installed on every water fountain and faucet in the building.
The filters were meant to protect the elementary school's students and staff from lead. But the work orders for their replacement were never marked complete, and in the following years elevated levels of the toxic metal would turn up in water samples taken at Miller Street and throughout New Jersey's largest school district.
More than two-and-a-half years would pass before the contamination came to light.
This March, water fountains were suddenly shut off and bottled water shipped to 30 of Newark's 67 public schools, following the announcement that water testing had found lead levels above the US Environmental Protection Agency's "action threshold" of 15 parts per billion.
Internal maintenance logs from Newark schools, obtained by VICE News through public records requests, show that Miller Street was not unusual. Since 2012 nearly 6,000 work orders for the scheduled replacement of lead filters — nearly 99 percent of such requests — were not marked complete.
Since the initial revelation that there has been lead in the water that Newark students use to wash and drink, the district has released past testing that shows the contamination dates back to at least 2010. In the days following that news, free blood tests were made available to students throughout the city and the school administration, headed by superintendent Chris Cerf, who said it would undertake "a comprehensive and in-depth internal review of past data, protocols, and implementation... [that] includes school level actions, such as the following of filter replacement protocols."
Asked in an interview this week whether lead filters had been consistently changed as specified in district protocols Cerf said, "I know you want a binary answer here and I know that's the story you've got in your head, but a binary answer is literally not possible. If I were to ask you to document all the plumbing changes you've done in your home or your family's home, I bet you a lot of money you would not be able to demonstrate or document it."
"I do not have confidence that we have a complete and accurate documentary record that allows us to say with absolute confidence that every filter was replaced in a timely fashion," Cerf, who became superintendent in July, 2015 after four years as New Jersey Education Commissioner, said. "The databases that were maintained, literally the number of individuals involved, the possibility of turn over, the possibility of other personnel related issues, and frankly our highly imperfect record keeping systems do not allow me to say with confidence that they were done."
But repeatedly throughout the interview Cerf also insisted that, "I do not believe that the documentation that you are appropriately directing my attention to proves they were not done."
Indeed, the maintenance logs cannot account for whether any individual work order was left incomplete due to shoddy record keeping or because the job was neglected — and other material suggests that many filters were changed. But an array of documents — including maintenance records, staff emails, and purchase orders — reveal school employees pointing to the long-standing failure to implement basic safety procedures, purchases of lead filters too low to cover the district's needs, and deep dysfunction throughout a system that was put in place to ensure that school children were not exposed to a toxin that can slow development and erode mental function.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention is unequivocal about the dangers of lead: "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected."
In every city across the United States, lead lurking in the fixtures, solder, and plumbing of old buildings can contaminate clean water. Newark's state-managed school district has actually been ahead of the national curve on this problem. Unlike those in many other municipalities, since 2003, schools in the poor, mostly African American city have worked to guard students from lead lingering in its dated building stock with an abatement regime of testing, flushing, and filtration.
The keystone in Newark's anti-lead protocols is changing the filters, installed on taps and drinking fountains throughout the district every six months — the period after which manufacturers say filters will no longer function and may start leaking lead back into the water. With persistent budget gaps and long-standing plans to overhaul and replace dozens of old buildings perennially delayed, the school district uses the filters as a stop-gap — a final defense to keep lead that may lurk in the water from reaching the mouths of children, who are especially vulnerable to its deleterious effects.
The importance of changing the filters is repeatedly emphasized in district documents going back years. And in an effort to ensure this vital task didn't fall victim to faulty memory, a preventive maintenance schedule was programmed into Newark's facilities management system: SchoolDude. Maintained by senior facilities staff, the system would send out reminders on a six-month basis about filter changes to the responsible employee and generate work orders to be filled and marked complete.
Of the more than 27,000 unique work orders in Newark's preventive maintenance logs from July, 2012 to March of this year — covering routine custodial work, including clearing gutters, maintaining air conditioning units, and testing fire alarms — just under 10 percent are marked with a completion date. Of the 5,835 orders for the change of lead filters only 65 were marked complete — just above 1 percent.
(Newark Public Schools responded to a separate request for the SchoolDude records of lead filter maintenance from 2004 to the present with an incomplete log of work orders and subsequently claimed providing the full logs would require creating a new record, something it is not obliged to do under New Jersey's public records law.)
Steve Morlino, who headed the facilities department in Newark Public Schools from 1999 to 2014, declined to go into detail regarding filter changes, citing advice from his attorney over a lawsuit brought against state and district officials earlier this month.
"There were a number of people under me who were in charge of the day-to-day facilities operations," said Morlino. "If filters weren't changed it had nothing to do with me. There was a preventative maintenance program in place. All of this stuff was scheduled and when people took over after I left, if they didn't do it, that's not on me. I can't help that."
Both Chris Cerf and a former schools employee who oversaw day-to-day changing of lead filters in part of the state-run district until 2014 said that more was done than the records show.
The employee, who asked to be left unnamed as they still work for the state and fear professional retribution, noted that many filter changes were marked complete in another part of the maintenance records system.
"Maybe we weren't closing out the work orders like we were supposed to, and that was an error or our part, but we did make sure that the filters were changed and that it was done," said the employee of the specific section of the district they managed.
Part of the difficulty in determining what was done comes from the fact that in 2014 district employees purged a great deal of data from the preventive maintenance logs. This wiping of records came in the context of a broader restructuring begun under former superintendent Cami Anderson, who abruptly left the district in June, 2015 after an embattled tenure.
An experienced educator, Anderson was appointed superintendent in 2011 by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Her mandate was to implement an ambitious plan dreamt up by the Republican governor and Newark's Democratic mayor Cory Booker, now a US senator, that would rapidly transform the chronically foundering district into a model of success and reform to be emulated by schools across the nation.
Armed with a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that was announced on The Oprah Winfrey Show, another $100 million in matching funds from private donors and foundations, and a cadre of new consultants and administrators steeped in research on education reform and data-driven management philosophies culled from Silicon Valley and Wall Street, Anderson began an effort to remake the schools that have long failed many of Newark's children. The plan saw new charter schools introduced to the district, the renegotiating of teachers' contracts and, in 2014, the centralization of district management under a program called One Newark.
In the facilities department, One Newark shifted responsibility for changing lead filters from the regional buildings supervisors and custodians to the plumbing department.
It also meant a new boss.
'We would like to begin this new fiscal year ... with the outstanding work orders ... voided.'
In February 2014, Keith Barton took over facilities in a newly created position: Executive Managing Director of Operations. Then in May, after 15 years in Newark, Steve Morlino was given a letter saying his contract would not be renewed. He left that month.
Barton too is a long-time district employee. He came up through the ranks in Newark serving as a teacher, principal, and eventually director of school operations — a position that handled hiring, budgets, and student discipline. Part of the description for his new job was to, "plan, direct, and monitor the activities and operations of the Facilities Team including grounds maintenance and facility construction and renovation."
But based on the CV he submitted in application to the job and interviews with several present and former Newark facilities employees, Barton moved into the post without experience in the technically complex work he was set to manage: maintenance, heating, electricity, plumbing, and a range of other basic building functions.
This lack of experience was addressed by New Jersey law, which required Barton to complete a 120-hour training to become "Certified Educational Facilities Manager," within two years of taking the job. Barton received his certification, which included 15 hours of training in preventive maintenance, on January 1, 2016 — two months before the district received the water test results showing elevated lead levels.
One of the early projects undertaken by Barton was the clearing out of SchoolDude records.
On July 7, 2014, Barton's special assistant Haqquisha Taylor emailed a SchoolDude employee asking for help cleaning out old, incomplete records. "We would like to begin this new fiscal year (7/1/14) with the outstanding work orders (anything dated before May 2014) voided. Please let me know if this can be done," she wrote.
The employee, Steven Abee, had previously expressed some confusion over a request to void past records, writing: "These types of requests are outside our normal service scope and very rare." But on August 20, after several emails and phone calls seeking to confirm that the district wanted to void tens of thousands of incomplete work orders, Abee wrote back: "The change to move those old outstanding work orders to VOID is complete."
The result was that tens of thousands of incomplete work orders that had previously born revealing status — such as "Pending," "Work In Progress," "Open Extended, "Duplicate Request," "Declined," "Waiting for Information," or "Parts on Order" — now all read "Void."
Cerf initially said he had "no idea" why this was done and then speculated that it may have been "an effort to rationalize the databases."
The district declined to make Barton available for an interview and Cami Anderson did not respond to interview requests.
With thousands of incomplete work orders for the scheduled change of lead filters switched to "Void" and employees admitting to poor record keeping, what was done remains murky. But other SchoolDude records and the district's purchase history of lead filters and filter cartridges help fill in the picture.
Chris Cerf said he did not know how many lead filters are installed throughout Newark's schools and refused to estimate. The former employee who oversaw changing filters said that there were around 1,000 installed on the taps and fountains throughout the 67-school, 35,054-student district — each of which would need to be replaced twice a year.
Morlino estimated "thousands."
Between June 2006 and May 2012, six full school years, purchase orders obtained through a freedom of information request, show that the Newark schools bought an average of 1,021 lead filters and filter cartridges each year. The largest purchase, 1,700, came in the 2006-2007 school year, and the smallest, 600, in 2009-2010.
The documents suggest trouble even during this period. "LEAD FREE FILTERS CBR2-10R - THROUGHOUT DISTRICT ," reads a Sept. 22, 2010 purchase order for 700 filters shipped to Robert Williams, a former plumbing foreman for the school system. The most recent purchase of filters prior to this one was 15 months earlier on June 17, 2009.
Morlino said he did not specifically recall the "emergency." Williams, who was fired in 2014 for bringing a gun onto school grounds, declined to comment for this story.
Asked if these purchases seemed sufficient to cover the district, Cerf said, "I think we've already established that both you and I are guessing about how many filters need to be changed each year, so I guess I can't directly answer that question. But I will tell you this: About 1,000 a year, based on the evidence that you adduced, sounds like that's about one filter a year and not two filters a year."
But in the 2012-2013 school year the number of filters purchased fell dramatically to 336. The next year, the district bought 795 filters and cartridges, but then in 2014-2015 only 200 cartridges were purchased.
Asked if these numbers seemed sufficient, Cerf said that an inventory of filters could have built up from previous years and that greater focus had been directed to certain water sources.
"One very possible interpretation of these data, one that I actually think is consistent with evidence and conversations I have had in my own investigation, is that rather than change every filter in every building, which would include basement slop sinks and sinks that nobody drinks from or cooks out of, that the directive that I believe say all [filters are to be changed biannually] was interpreted to put a primary focus on drinking water outlets," he said. "I have a very high level of confidence that attention was consistently paid to water fountains and kitchen facilities."
Water fountain filters turn up over and over in Newark's direct maintenance logs — a section of SchoolDude that is separate from preventive maintenance, where employees can place requests to have work done. Between June 2012 and the present, 486 direct requests for filter changes were placed, some for a single water fountain or sink, others for entire floors or buildings. Of these, 372 were marked with a completion date.
For instance, in 2012, ten weeks after the annual July 4 reminder to change the filters at Miller Street Elementary, a work order to replace eight filters in the school was marked complete. But Miller Street had no equivalent work orders — complete or not — in 2013 or any of the following years, and some of the requests for new filters from Newark's own custodial staff suggest neglect.
"All water fountain filter need to be changed have not been changed for over 14 months," reads a request from Newton Street Elementary, now a charter school, where elevated lead levels were found every year between 2010 and the present. It has no completion date.
"Replace all water filter last time it was replace was on March 2014," reads another more recent request from Newton Street. It also has no completion date.
Two requests from the Bragaw Avenue School read: "Water filter needs to be changed. High lead reading," and, "Change water filter. high lead reading." They have no completion dates.
A request marked complete on March 13, 2015 from Westside High School say, "THE FILTER NEEDS TO BE CHANGE. THE WATER IS COMING OUT BROWN AND IS NOT DRINKABLE, BUT IS NEEDED FOR THE ATHLETIC TEAMS. ASAP."
Another from University High School marked complete three days later reads, "pPLEASE CHANGE WATER FILTERS SOME FILTERS 2 YEARS PAST DATED."
Cerf stressed that the dates that custodial and plumbing staff wrote on filters may or may not correspond with when they were last changed. Likewise, after being presented with the district documents, he insisted that they do not indicate definitively whether or not filters were consistently changed.
But looking at the issue overall he also said that keeping children safe requires acknowledging that, rather than being exceptional, Newark has "been a canary in a coal mine," despite being ahead of many school districts simply by having a lead abatement plan.
Earlier this month, Chris Christie ordered mandatory lead testing for every New Jersey public school — a $10 million undertaking that will cover some 3,000 school facilities. Lead has already shown up in other districts and Newark is in the process of completing its own million-dollar battery of testing and re-testing that will take a sample from every water source in every building, rather than the ten samples taken from each building used in past testing.
Meanwhile, Newark students and staff in the affected buildings are continuing to use only outside water, something Cerf says will continue as long as necessary. Barcodes are being installed on water sources throughout Newark's schools to allow for better records tracing, and the district is working with environmental and engineering authorities to develop new practices and protocols for lead abatement.
Cerf, pointing to the fact that lead plumbing was only banned nationwide with the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1986, called for federal action on lead in schools and for mandatory water testing in districts across the country.
Likewise, Steve Morlino, who helped set up Newark's lead abatement system in 2003 and now runs the facilities department in New Jersey's Paterson school district, said that its time the country dealt with its aging infrastructure.
"This is not a problem unique to Newark," said the facilities manager. "This is a problem clear across this country and its time people woke up and said, 'What's the quality of the water?' Especially when you're dealing with old schools."
In the mid 1990s, the US Department of Education conducted a series of surveys to determine the age of America's school buildings. It found that 90 percent of schools were built before 1985.
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg