High lead levels found in water at seven Newark schools, spurring calls for greater transparency

Elevated levels of lead were found in the water at seven out of 29 Newark schools where tests were conducted since August 2018, according to newly revealed district data.

The district shut off the water sources with high lead levels soon after the samples were analyzed, according to the data, which Chalkbeat obtained through a public records request. 

However, the district did not post the test results on its website, as required by state rules

The rules also mandate that the district inform families and school staffers whenever elevated lead levels are found. However, the district did not send the required written notifications, according to WNYC/Gothamist, which first reported the test results.

The data comes as Newark grapples with an ongoing water crisis that drew national attention this summer when high lead levels were discovered in some homes, forcing the city to temporarily distribute bottled water. City officials have faced criticism in the past for downplaying the lead problem.

Now, some residents are alarmed that district officials are not being fully transparent about the findings of lead in some schools’ water.

“Parents want to know what’s going on with the water so we can know what to do,” said Ronnie Kellam, whose son is a first-grader at McKinley Elementary School, which was not among the 29 recently tested schools.

“They haven’t shared the data with us — all they do is tell us they’re testing the water,” Kellam added, saying it seems district officials are concerned with “protecting themselves and not getting information out to the public.”

Most of the schools tested from August 2018 to June 2019 had no lead in their water samples or concentrations below 15 parts per billion, which is the federal threshold for taking action. But seven schools had at least one water source with lead concentrations above the federal action level, according to the data.

The schools found to have high lead levels were: 13th Avenue, 14th Avenue, Ivy Hill, Mount Vernon, Newark Leadership Academy, Park, and West Side High School. 

The contaminated sources included water fountains and sinks used in nurses’ offices and for food preparation. In each case, the district turned off the affected water source or — at West Side — posted a sign saying “hand washing only” above a sink, according to the data.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to emailed questions Tuesday. She also did not respond in August when Chalkbeat asked whether elevated lead levels had been found any schools since 2017.

During a live radio program last month, Superintendent Roger León said “we have information that is clearly indicating that the water sources that our students are being provided is safe for them to drink.” He did not mention that tests conducted after he became superintendent in July 2018 found high lead levels in 10 water sources across the seven schools.

Referring to lead testing, León added that he is “making sure that when we do this, the results are on the web so that everyone can see.” However, the district has not posted the results of any lead tests conducted after 2017.

In an interview with WNYC/Gothamist, the district’s school business administrator said that officials believed they did not have to notify families and staffers about the elevated lead levels because the district was conducting tests more often than is required by state law. 

The administrator, Valerie Wilson, added that officials were also concerned about how the public might react if the results were posted online.

“The next piece is now when you have these exceedances, how do you report them responsibly so you don’t create panic for people,” Wilson said.

The district faced its own water crisis in 2016, when nearly half of Newark schools were found to have elevated levels of lead. In response, the district shut off the water at the schools, replaced lead pipes, and installed new water filters.

Soon after, state lawmakers updated regulations to require districts to test for lead every six years and post the results online. In accordance with the rules, Newark school officials notified families and posted the lead results on the district website.

Since then, the district has continued to conduct periodic tests for lead in schools’ water. Most of the recent water samples showed little or no lead, lending credence to officials who say that schools’ water filters are working. Of the nearly 450 water sources tested since August 2018, just 10 had lead levels above the federal standard for taking action.

Yet even as the findings have been mostly reassuring, the district has not posted any lead test results for more than a year. The most recent samplings to be posted online are from tests conducted in 2017 — despite state regulations that say districts must publish the results within 24 hours of viewing them.

Kim Gaddy, who was on the Newark school board from 2016 until this April, said the district did a good job informing the public during the lead crisis three years ago. But, she said, the district has been less forthcoming about water quality since León took charge.

“I don’t know why that process changed when a new superintendent came in,” she said. “I just see that something changed.”

Gaddy said she was not aware of the district notifying families and schools when high lead levels were found in water sources over the past year, as it previously had. She also said her request that the board share the results at its monthly public meetings “fell on deaf ears.”

“It’s always the lack of transparency and communication that cause problems,” Gaddy said. “When you begin to not share information, then parents begin to ask: ‘What are they hiding?’”

On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced new guidelines that will require districts to test for lead more frequently and submit the results to a public statewide database.

In Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka has repeatedly defended the city’s handling of the water crisis, which has included distributing free water filters and creating a plan to replace thousands of lead pipes. 

León has touted the district’s system for filtering and monitoring the water in schools. During last month’s live broadcast of “Newark Today” on WBGO, he added that the district had no reason to hide the results of lead tests.

“We don’t have time to be lying about anything,” he said.