Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will test 32 more schools for lead in drinking water — and this time officials say they’ll be up front about the results.
The second round of testing, which will take place this fall, will cover mostly middle and high schools built before 1989 (see the accompanying list). The concern is not with the water supply, which mostly comes from the city of Charlotte, but with lead that leaches from old plumbing and can contaminate drinking water and kitchen water sources.
The announcement follows controversy over the district’s decision not to inform parents when it found unacceptably high levels of lead coming from fixtures at 27 elementary and K-8 schools tested in fall 2017. CMS informed parents when the testing took place and replaced or removed the water fountains and sinks that tested high, but didn’t disclose any results until reporters inquired this summer.
Superintendent Clayton Wilcox initially defended that decision, noting that CMS had done the testing voluntarily and concluded that there were no health hazards. Two independent experts interviewed by the Observer agreed it’s unlikely that children or staff took in enough water from fixtures that leached lead to endanger their health.
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Lead is toxic for everyone, but especially damaging to pregnant women and young children, who can suffer learning and behavioral problems, lower IQ and physical health problems at lower exposure levels than in adults.
But at Tuesday’s school board meeting Wilcox acknowledged the decision to withhold information was a mistake.
“We’ve learned some lessons about that,” he said, vowing that future environmental testing will include full disclosure of results. “I think our community deserves to know that when they send their children to our schools, their children are safe.”
Brian Kasher, who managed environmental health for CMS for seven years before resigning in June 2012, continues to criticize CMS for withholding details of the 2017 reports, including which fixtures were identified as having high lead levels. He says a “Coalition of Concerned CMS Parents” will speak at the Sept. 12 school board meeting and convene a public hearing later that month, with a wide range of public officials invited.
Wilcox told the school board that both the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County contacted the district after news about the lead testing broke, offering to help with future testing. It was unclear what role those bodies will play in checking the older middle and high schools.
However, Wilcox did note that there’s no money in the current budget for lead testing and he’ll have to find a way to shift money from another source to cover the second round. The cost is estimated at $237,000.
For the first round CMS paid a consultant about $230,000 to test more than 1,600 samples from 58 elementary and K-8 schools built before 1989. Replacing or adding filters to the fixtures with high readings cost less than $17,000.
The second round involves fewer buildings, but middle and high schools are generally larger, often encompassing several buildings that have been built and/or renovated over the course of decades. Wilcox said CMS also plans to test three older buildings currently used for administrative offices, including the Atrium building where Wilcox and most top administrators work.
After reporters inquired about lead testing, CMS created a web page with reports and information about water testing.
Schools being tested
High schools: Cochrane/iMeck Academy, East Mecklenburg, Garinger, Harding, Hawthorne, Independence, Leadership Academy, Myers Park, North Mecklenburg, Olympic, Performance Learning Center (old Derita school), Providence, South Mecklenburg, West Charlotte, Project LIFT Academy (Graham Center), West Mecklenburg.
Middle schools: Albemarle Road, Alexander Graham, Carmel, Coulwood, Eastway, Kennedy, Northeast, Piedmont, Quail Hollow, Randolph, Ranson, Sedgefield, Wilson STEM.
Elementary: Villa Heights.
Combined: Williams Montessori, Northwest Arts.
Administration buildings: Atrium Education Center, Spaugh, Smith Family Center.