By Samantha Winslow
August 2, 2016
The school superintendent in Portland, Oregon, has resigned amid a widening scandal, after news broke that the district waited months to tell the public that drinking water at two elementary schools had tested positive for lead.
Even school employees only learned about the elevated lead levels at Creston and Rose City Park when a local newspaper ran an exposé.
“What set all of us off initially was the cover-up,” said Belinda Reagan, president of the union that represents school clerical staff. “They lied about it. They knew. That’s a notorious manner of handling things in this district. They are not forthcoming.”
The first two schools were just the tip of the iceberg. “Now we are finding out, as they are testing more schools, that all of them have the issues,” Reagan said.
The four unions representing teachers, custodians, and clerical employees quickly united to put pressure on the district—and to find out how this problem went unfixed for so long. They’re demanding testing of all schools, safety protection for students and employees, and a role in the plan to make schools safe by the fall.
Periodic lead testing showed the presence of lead in Portland schools’ drinking water back in 2001. Between 2010 and 2012, the district found unsafe levels of lead in 47 schools.
Since then, parents and employees had assumed the district was following protocol—including installing and replacing water filters, and where needed, posting signs warning people not to drink the water. It turns out that wasn’t true.
The superintendent has claimed she was unaware of the problem. She fired two managers overseeing school maintenance.
But Portland Association of Teachers Vice President Elizabeth Thiel said it’s been a struggle just to find out who was really responsible for overseeing building safety. “It feels like a system that has been built in order to divert attention from problems, and to dead-end problems, instead of solving them,” she said.
Part of the problem, said outgoing PAT President Gwen Sullivan, is that over the years the district has cut back and outsourced its maintenance staff, getting rid of the workers who had “historic knowledge” of the buildings—while administration passed the buck on the ongoing problems.
“Nobody cared about the buildings,” Sullivan said. “Nobody took ownership.”
PAT leaders joined with the other school-employee unions—Service Employees (SEIU) Local 503, a council of trades unions, and the Portland Federation of School Professionals (AFT) Local 111—to make sure the problems don’t fall through the cracks again.
At the June school board meeting, the presidents of the four unions together announced their demands, including that the district pay the cost for any employee who chooses to be tested for lead poisoning, and that it share its plan to ensure schools are safe by the end of the summer.
One demand the unions quickly won was an independent investigation. Results were announced July 18, concluding that higher-ups had shown an “absence of diligent inquiry” on lead safety protocols.
The day the report came out, the superintendent announced her resignation.