‘Lead is no joke’ – activists plan to press CMS on contaminated school water

Making references to water contamination in Flint, Mich., activists Thursday denounced Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for withholding information about lead in school water and mold in classrooms.

“Charlotte-Mecklenburg, too, is Flint. That’s how serious this is,” said Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP.

About two dozen adults and teens gathered at Little Rock AME Zion Church in uptown Charlotte on Thursday to demand greater accountability from a superintendent who initially dismissed high levels of lead coming from school drinking fountains as “not noteworthy or newsworthy.” Rev. Dwayne Walker, pastor of the church, agreed to head a group of business, civic and political leaders who will seek a meeting with Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and his top staff.

“If we don’t say anything, then they won’t do anything,” Walker said.

Although Thursday’s forum was publicized, including at a news conference before the last school board meeting, neither Wilcox nor any of his top staff or school board members attended.

Several speakers lambasted Wilcox for withholding lead testing results for months.

Last fall CMS voluntarily tested water from drinking fountains and other fixtures at 58 older elementary and K-8 schools. At 27 of those schools, one or more fixtures revealed unsafe lead levels — up to 28 times the state’s action level. The district replaced, repaired or decommissioned all of those fixtures but didn’t tell parents about the results.

“That is irresponsible behavior,” said former Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts. “Parents aren’t going to panic. They’re going to use information in a correct way to protect their children.”

“Lead is no joke,” said Joel Segal, director of the Justice Action Mobilization Network. “That should bother everyone. That’s negligence.”

The results came out this summer later, after the Observer and WSOC requested the information. Wilcox initially defended the decision not to notify families, saying no one’s health was at risk. At Thursday’s meeting, organizers played a clip of Wilcox telling WSOC he didn’t consider those findings “noteworthy or newsworthy.”

But as criticism continued, Wilcox told the school board that CMS “probably could have done a better job ... we learned some lessons about that.”

Wilcox then announced that CMS will test 32 middle and high schools this fall, even though the money wasn’t in his 2018-19 budget, and promptly disclose the results. CMS has created a web page with reports and information about water testing.

Brian Kasher, a current CMS parent and former environmental health manager for the district, says CMS has continued to resist providing some details from the first round of lead testing, including appendices that reveal the locations of the fixtures that were tested. He has accused the district of a pattern of “deception by omission” dating back to his resignation in 2012, when he says he found “large scale mold infestations” and other environmental health hazards that weren’t disclosed.

Even though the problems predate Wilcox, Kasher said he blames the current superintendent for continuing to gloss over problems. He cited CMS denials in January that there was a mold problem at Providence High School, even as students and faculty complained about health problems and CMS did testing and clean-up.

Kasher said Wilcox has continued a CMS tradition of explaining away environmental problems when the public turns up the pressure with, “Oops, we need to improve communication.”

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