Lawmaker to push plan for safer water in NC schools and daycares

A teacher at South Mecklenburg High photographed this faucet leaking rusty water, “repaired” with a plastic bag, to illustrate health and safety concerns about school buildings.
A teacher at South Mecklenburg High photographed this faucet leaking rusty water, “repaired” with a plastic bag, to illustrate health and safety concerns about school buildings. Courtesy of South Meck teacher

The reports are as concerning as the photo is gross.

In Mecklenburg County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools ran tests on drinking fountains at 58 schools last fall and found 27 had unacceptably high levels of lead, the Observer reported this month.

In Guilford County, a sampling of one tap per site at 99 Greensboro-area schools found three with lead levels to the point at which the Environment Protection Agency recommends corrective action, the News & Record reported last week.

Then there’s that photo, which is best not viewed within a half-hour of meals. It was taken by a South Mecklenburg High School teacher and showed a bag with rust-colored liquid tied to a faucet. It didn’t appear to be a faucet that students would be drinking out of, but the photo nevertheless tied together a troubling issue that schools face: old plumbing might be threatening the water our children drink.

How worried should parents be with public schools starting Monday? Experts told the Observer that it’s likely OK if students drink from the CMS fountains in question — especially if they let the water run a bit — but no one seemed ready to say there’s no chance of exposure to unsafe levels of lead.

There’s at least one way to better ensure safe water, however: Test it. Last year, a group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers tried to do just that for schools and day care establishments across North Carolina.

House Bill 825, a truly bipartisan effort, required water to be tested for lead at the state’s public schools and many day care facilities. The bill recognized that lead levels appeared to be higher at schools built more than three decades ago, before the federal government restricted use of lead pipes in construction. In turn, lawmakers laid out a thoughtful, tiered plan in which older schools would be tested first.

Another plus: The plan called for municipal water suppliers, not school districts, to do the testing and reporting. Intentionally or not, that would help avoid the issue of school districts being reluctant for any reason to report results. In Charlotte, CMS faced criticism for not reporting lead-testing results until the Observer and WCNC asked questions. Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said officials would have reported results if they thought the water was harmful to students.

Promising at it was, House Bill 825 died in committee. Why? Primary sponsor Harry Warren, a Republican from Rowan County, says that a big issue was money. “We had a responsibility to help them remediate with financial backing,” Warren told the Observer editorial board. Lawmakers, however, were unable to settle on how to provide that funding.

In the wake of the CMS and Guilford results, Warren wants to give the bill another push next session if he’s reelected this fall. While CMS already has committed to testing water at the rest of its schools, other districts might not have the money or desire to do the same. Lawmakers should mandate they do.