BARTOW – The Wall Street Journal recently reported that lead in public schools has become a nationwide concern. That may help local parents put recent news that lead has also been found in Polk County Public Schools in perspective.
“It’s become a hot topic,” said Polk County Public Schools Maintenance Services Manager Rory Luce during a Sept. 6 press conference.
In late August, the Tampa Bay Times published a story alleging that the Hillsborough County School Board hid evidence of lead from parents for more than a year. In response to that investigation, Polk County School Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd decided to start testing here. There are no laws mandating testing, only EPA recommendations and the last time Polk County schools were tested was back in the 1990s, Luce said.
The Polk County School Board has not made any public announcements that a change in school policy in reference to lead testing is being considered.
On Aug. 31 Luce led a press conference initially announcing that elevated amounts of lead in four of the first five schools tested. Letters were sent to parents of children in the four schools, Inwood Elementary in Winter Haven, Union Academy in Bartow, and Winston Academy of Engineering and Cleveland Court Elementary in Lakeland. Bottled water was also provided to these schools. Luce said the fifth school, Polk Avenue Elementary in Lake Wales, was completely cleared.
On Sept. 5 the Winter Haven Sun reported that all five schools had elevated levels of lead and were given bottled water. That morning, Polk County Schools spokesperson Kyle Kennedy requested a correction be published.
“Of the five schools we initially tested, four, not five tested for elevated levels of lead,” Kennedy emailed. “Polk Avenue Elementary did not have elevated levels. Accordingly, we provided bottled water and letters of notification to the four affected schools with elevated levels, not all five.”
The EPA and the school board define elevated levels of lead in excess of 15 parts per billion. At one fixture at Polk Avenue Elementary, there were documented levels of 14 parts per billion. A second fixture had levels of 12 parts per billion.
The Lake Wales Charter School Board of Trustees administer Polk Avenue Elementary. Lake Wales Charter Schools Superintendent Dr. Jesse Jackson said he was never made aware of these amounts until he was contacted by the Winter Haven Sun.
“I nor our board of trustees were informed of the situation at Polk Avenue,” Dr. Jackson said. “Given the nature of the situation and the closeness of the lead levels that you have noted in this email, I’m confident that the parents would want to be informed about the situation.”
Polk Avenue Elementary Principal Gail Quam said the Polk County School Board released results from testing of well water used at the school but she had not been made aware of any lead testing results from inside the school.
A contractor for the Polk County School Board has made approximately 150 samples of water since Aug. 16. Of these 12 of 33 samples from Union Academy had elevated levels of lead; one sample of elevated lead was initially found at Inwood Elementary; three at Winston; and one at Cleveland Court. All of the problem fixtures had minor repairs done and were retested.
After retesting, Luce said four fixtures still had elevated levels at Union Academy and one fixture is still has elevated levels at Winston.
Students at these schools were prohibited access from these problem fixtures and provided bottled water and warning letters. But none of this was provided for students, staff and parents associated with Polk Avenue Elementary, which had lead levels alarmingly close to 15 parts per billion.
Luce said parents with concerns would be allowed to let their children bring bottled water from home as testing continues. Luce said additional testing contractors have been hired and that 10-12 schools would be tested per week subsequently.
Luce said the problem does not appear to be the pipes behind the walls inside schools, but valve stems and valve seats with lead components. Most of the problem fixtures have been able to be fixed by cleaning the fixtures and aerators, Luce said.
Dr. Jackson said he was seeking help from Lake Wales Charter School Board of Trustees attorney Robin Gibson to express concern that nobody from the Polk County School Board alerted them.