Monday night, Phil Williams of Channel 5 News Nashville ran a story on lead in the school district’s water that horrified me. I should have been prepared; after all, I was interviewed for the story. But for some reason, the depth of the report didn’t fully hit me until I watched the whole story unfold and saw the reactions of district leaders.
I’ve told you before that my children attend Tusculum ES and that my wife teaches there. Over the years, it’s been a lesson in what inequity looks like. Well, the lessons are far from complete.
According to Channel 5’s report, water in the school was tested during summer of 2016 and two fountains were found to have elevated levels of lead. The June tests showed the two fountains with lead content of 21.8 and 23.8 parts per billion. The “action level” recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency for public water systems is 15 parts per billion. The July test again showed lead levels of 16.8 and 23.2 parts per billion.
It can’t be said enough that the EPA number of 15 parts per billion is merely an action level. What that means is that if water tests above 15 ppb, action should be taken immediately. That action is either changing out pipes or disconnecting outlets. Most people fail to understand that 15 ppb was never designed to be a safety threshold.
When the Environmental Protection Agency established this action level for lead in drinking water decades ago, it was designed as an administrative tool for water districts to determine when to treat their water for corrosion control. It was never intended as a health-based standard for children. The truth is that research shows that even exposure to levels as low as 5 micrograms per decileter have been shown to have a negative effect on children’s IQ and development, as well as lead to higher rates of neurobehavioral disorders like ADHD.
So, I bet you are assuming that once the district received news in September 2016 from their consultant that two fountains were showing elevated numbers, and that at the very least a flushing program should be instituted, they hoped right to it. You would be wrong. They didn’t inform the principal until June 2017. And that was probably only because someone was clearing out their email and thought, “Oh look at that. I forgot to forward that. Let’s just do it now.”
Now you are probably thinking, “Boy, I bet the district feels bad.” Wrong again. Chief Operating Officer, and the only person on the leadership team who seems willing to flirt with accountability on district issues, Chris Henson, offered this defense: “In hindsight, would we do things differently? Would we communicate better? Probably, but we were learning as we went.” Now forgive me my ignorance, but don’t we take exception with charter schools for using our kids as test subjects? And if kids’ health is at risk, is 9 months really an acceptable time frame for learning?
Henson compounds the situation by claiming, “Once we determined how we were going to view those results, then we took action and immediately disconnected any water source that exceeded the threshhold.” Huh? Immediately? “As soon as that decision was made.”
That’s like me laying in the hospital with 3rd degree burns on 90% of my body asking you, “Why didn’t you pull me out of the fire right from the start, when you saw the building on fire, before I got burned? You saw I was trapped and knew what would happen.” Then you reply, “Well, we had to assess the situation and decide on the proper course of action. But once we did, we immediately went in and pulled you out.”
The proper course of action was clear from the beginning. Pull me out of the fire, call the fire company, and notify my family. Not hard. At the very least you could Google it and get a response in under 9 months.
I suspect that deciding how to view the results had more to do with adult concerns than kid’s safety. Concerns like how this was going to reflect on leadership. Where money would come from for corrective action. Lord knows we need every dime for our consultants and trips. Whatever the consideration, it meant that kids were exposed to dangerous levels of lead for almost a year.
When Henson was asked if he found this fact concerning, he said, “It’s concerning, and it’s something that we don’t take lightly. That’s the reason that we did this testing.” Henry Ford once said you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do. It would not hurt this administration to mount that saying on plaques in everybody’s office. Testing without action is merely half the equation.
Testing without following through renders the action useless. It’s like the police saying, “Hey, we did a study and found you have a lot of burglaries in your neighborhood.”
“Did you up patrols?”
“Not very helpful, are you?”
I found it particularly ironic that the story on water showed up the same day that Director of Schools Shawn Joseph sent out a districtwide email on the horrific events of the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. In his message, Joseph stated:
“Nashville has a unique, uncompromising history of fighting for civil rights. We are a community that embraces the world’s children with open arms as our own, and we see our diversity as one of our greatest strengths. As we help our children understand the challenges that violence, bigotry, and hate pose to all of us as human beings, let us communicate our commitment and appreciation for diversity in all of its forms.”
Beautiful words, but apparently he doesn’t feel as strongly about protecting those very same kids from threats to their health and well being posed by their schools that he oversees. It wasn’t Joseph out there defending the district’s actions and inactions over the last year. It wasn’t Joseph on camera reaffirming to parents that the safety of their child was his first and foremost concern. For some reason, this Director seems incapable of saying “We made a mistake” or “I take accountability for this.” Yet his defenders still spin the defense that he is fixing the problems of his predecessors.
It’s important to note here that right before Dr. Joseph arrived in Nashville, his previous employer, Prince George’s County Public Schools, lost a 6.3 million dollar federal grant due to issues involving child safety. His defense at the time was the familiar, “I didn’t know. Wasn’t me.” He claims he didn’t know despite the responsible department being under his supervision.
The MNPS School Board has members who love to write eloquent prose highlighting the shortcomings of charter schools. Just this past Monday, board member Will Pinkston posted his latest recap of his ongoing attacks on LEAD Academy – I know the irony is overwhelming. He writes:
“Now, in a bald-faced attempt to cover up the facts, LEAD has engaged high-priced lawyers to slow-walk the charter chain’s response to my fact-finding open-records request. In an effort to resolve the situation, I have reached out to the State of Tennessee’s Office of Open Records Counsel. I’m not optimistic that we’ll get clear answers to what’s really happening at LEAD. If not, it may be time to consider systematically rescinding LEAD’s contracts with Metro Nashville Public Schools. Thousands of students and millions in taxpayer dollars are at stake, and it’s overdue time for MNPS to hold this bad actor accountable.”
I wonder if there is a letter to Dr. Joseph asking for clarification on the water policy. I wonder if there is a letter to the state exploring the possibility of emergency funds to help replace pipes. I wonder if there is a letter calling for a release of the location and lead levels of all water sources in question so that parents and schools administrators have the information to protect their charges. After all, thousands of students and millions in taxpayer dollars are at stake, and it’s overdue time for MNPS to hold themselves accountable.
Now to be fair, MNPS is not the only school district facing this dilemma. Districts across the country are struggling to find a way to address the health risks associated with high levels of lead in their water. What that means, though, is that there is an abundance of information available in regards to best practices for combating the issue. We just have to attach a priority to it and do the research. Something that, to date, has been lacking.
We refer to the crisis as involving lead in drinking water but we have to be careful here that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the danger comes only from water that children drink. The threat includes any water used to prepare lunches. If a school has a community garden, it would be inadvisable to eat vegetables from that garden. If teachers make coffee in the lounge, they could be at risk as well. The seriousness of this situation can not be overstated.
I watch situations like this unfold and the attitudes of district officials and it gives me cause to reflect upon the attacks on public education. I find myself wondering, who is responsible for the most egregious attacks? What hurts kids more, the proliferation of charter schools or the inability for us to keep our neediest kids safe? Look around the district right now – the abundance of schools in the midst of construction or serving kids in adequate facilities and where those schools exist – and ask yourself are we really supplying an equitable education experience for all kids?
I’ll be honest right now, I’m suffering from a crisis of faith. I believe from the bottom of my soul in the power of public education. But if a district administrator is willing to go on camera and offer cover to protect adults over kids, how is that living up to the ideals of public education? If a district allows my kids to be exposed to harmful levels of lead for over a year without regret, how is that the best choice for my family? If a school district proves itself incapable of keeping its neediest charges safe, why should it be preserved? Who does more damage to the public school system, charter school operators or district officials who don’t ascribe to transparency or accountability?
Years ago, after my father had given me a hard time for some shortcoming or another, I asked him why he was so hard on me. He never expected as much, nor was he as critical, of other kids as he was of me. He responded, “They are not my son. I don’t love them like I love you, and therefore I don’t have as high expectations for them as I do you.” When I think about MNPS, I try to remember those words.
This week, MNPS will hold a ribbon cutting for Tusculum Elementary School’s brand new building. I hope every city and school leader who steps to the podium looks out and realizes that those are the faces of the children who, through their inaction they put at risk for an entire year. And I hope they ask themselves if they are truly exceeding expectations or if those are just words on paper.