Parents and activists say CMS lost their trust by keeping mum on lead in water

Parents and activists who don’t trust Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ pledge to come clean about lead in drinking water rallied Tuesday to demand more honesty about potential health hazards.

“I’ve got a high school daughter. I worry about the quality of water in her school,” said the Rev. Rodney Sadler, an official with the interfaith MeckMin and the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice. “The lack of clarity makes us constantly suspicious.”

Local officials from the NAACP and the Justice Action Mobilization Network, a national environmental group, joined in the criticism of the district’s handling of environmental hazards. The coalition plans to hold its own public hearing Sept. 20, hoping to get students, parents and teachers to tell their stories while elected officials and CMS executives listen.

Their action comes after CMS opted not to inform parents when its own voluntary testing found unacceptably high lead levels in water fountains, kitchen sinks and other fixtures at 27 schools last fall. The results were reported to the public only after reporters inquired this summer.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox initially defended the delayed disclosure, saying children and staff were unlikely to have been exposed to enough lead to cause health problems and CMS removed or repaired all fixtures with high readings. But on Aug. 28 he told the school board “we’ve learned some lessons about that” and promised openness with the next round of lead testing, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 24.

Parent Sherika Kemp said this discolored water came from a drinking fountain in the fifth-grade hall at University Park Creative Arts School on Sept. 5, almost a year after CMS found unsafe levels of lead in water from five fixtures at that school. Courtesy of Sherika Kemp

Sherika Kemp, who has a child at University Park Creative Arts School, displayed a photo of a plastic bottle filled with what looked like weak tea. She said she collected the discolored water from a drinking fountain in the fifth-grade hall last week.

University Park was one of 27 schools where unsafe lead levels were found last fall. The district said it removed the five fixtures that had high readings.

“These are our future leaders,” Kemp said. “They deserve better.”

Brian Kasher, a former CMS environmental health manager who is working with the coalition of critics, had planned to speak at Tuesday’s board meeting and invite members to participate in the Sept. 20 hearing “in a professional non-public relations capacity,” he told the Observer in an email.

But the board, which normally takes public comments at its first monthly meeting, shifted its schedule this month. Tuesday’s meeting was a board work session, and the public forum won’t come until Sept. 24.

After the Observer and WCNC inquired about the 2017 lead testing, CMS posted the results for the first 58 schools tested on its website. But Kasher has criticized CMS for not including such details as the location of each fixture that had high readings.

“The published reports are strategically ambiguous in that they simply do not provide complete and necessary information from which to make judgments specific to individual exposure potentials,” Kasher said in an email to several reporters.

Kasher, who worked for CMS from 2005 until his resignation in 2012, has told reporters and an array of public officials that he left because previous CMS leaders instructed him to lie and withhold information about mold, poor ventilation and other school environmental health hazards.

On Tuesday school board member Carol Sawyer emailed the elected officials and reporters that Kasher has sent his messages to, saying the appendix Kasher has requested not only lists the locations of fixtures tested but includes school diagrams “that could endanger school security and put the safety of our students, teachers and staff at risk.”

“Out of an abundance of caution in our current environment, CMS would prefer that the fact that maps, diagrams of schools are included in the reports not be shared widely because law enforcement advises that this may encourage persons intending harm to seek these reports out, equipped with knowledge that dozens of plans for elementary schools are included in these documents,” Sawyer’s email said.

The public hearing being held by Kasher and the coalition will be at 6 p.m. Sept. 20 at Little Rock AME Zion Church, 401 N. McDowell St.

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms