troubled water?

Detroit district tests drinking water after lead or copper discovered in 6 schools

PHOTO: Flickr
Water fountains have been shut off in six Detroit district schools

Students at six Detroit schools have been drinking bottled water for weeks since tests revealed dangerous levels of lead or copper in the schools’ water fountains.

Elevated toxic levels, found in the six schools for the second time since 2016, have prompted expanded retesting in the rest of the 106-school district.

After the 2016 discovery, the district coated pipes at some schools with a silicate to prevent leaching of metals and bacteria, and has continued testing. But retesting this year again discovered elevated levels of metals, and Detroit’s main district shut off water fountains and brought in bottled water.

The discovery is yet another blow to a district struggling with dilapidated  buildings neglected by a series of state-appointed emergency managers during a mounting budget crisis. Last week, district schools were closed early for three consecutive days because of “sweatbox” conditions in unairconditioned buildings, and earlier this year, one school closed after a leaky roof led to mold in the ceiling tiles.

The district initially discovered lead and copper in water pipes in aging district schools when it started testing water in 2016, a move prompted by the Flint water crisis.

The renewed discovery of lead and copper occurred in six schools that tested positive for them in 2016, as did 13 other district schools then. Parents at the six schools have been notified, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti informed board members in a memo last month.

“We transparently and proactively have discontinued the use of water at schools when and where concerns have been raised while communicating to parents when concerns have surfaced,” Vitti said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are proactively testing the water at all of our schools even though this is not required by federal, state, or local laws.”

A facility review of district buildings will be shared with the community later this month, Vitti’s statement said, and will “define our district’s facility challenges moving forward.”

The six affected elementary and middle schools schools are J.E. Clark Preparatory Academy, Bow Elementary School, Burton International Academy, Carver STEM Academy, Detroit Lions Academy and Sampson Webber Leadership Academy.

While she’s grateful the district voluntarily tests the water and informs parents and students, Burton International Academy’s PTA President Dana Dacres said the water shutoff has been a great inconvenience for students, teachers and staff.

Teachers line younger students up for water breaks at coolers dispersed around the pre-K-8 school, thus reducing classroom instruction time. Previously, most students drank from hallway water fountains as needed. Four-ounce foil-covered water cups also are available around the school, she said.

As a result, Dacres said, custodians have increased workloads because of spills and litter from the water cups, and kitchen workers lack water they need for reheating and cleaning.

“It’s just a lot more waste, and it’s because of this aging building” on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near the city’s historic Corktown district, she said.  “It’s got questionable material and changing the pipes is going to be costly and time consuming, but something needs to be done.”

Dacres also said she’s concerned about how long the repairs will take because summer school will be held in the building.

District board member LaMar Lemmons said he’s alarmed.

“I’m concerned about all our children in these buildings,” he said.

Lead exposure can cause serious damage to children’s developing brains, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and there is no safe level of exposure.

Studies show most lead exposure doesn’t immediately cause symptoms, but as the concentration of lead in the body  rises, symptoms can include headaches, stomach pain, loss of appetite or constipation. Research also shows lead exposure also can lead to developmental delays, decreased intelligence and cognition, behavioral issues and an array of other health issues. Copper can cause gastrointestinal issues, and long-term exposure to copper can damage the liver or kidneys.

The district began testing for lead, copper and other contaminants in 2016 after concerns in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 when the source of the city’s drinking water was changed from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the less expensive Flint River.

The Flint water wasn’t sufficiently treated, and more than 100,000 residents were believed to be exposed to high lead levels in the drinking water. Many residents, who are still drinking bottled water, grew ill because of the lead exposure. A federal state of emergency was declared in January 2016, and the city’s corroded lead water pipes are still being replaced.

Detroit district buildings are undergoing a review of its building conditions, many of which are in serious disrepair. It’s a problem that became a national story more than two years ago when the district cancelled most classes because so many teachers called in sick to protest school conditions.

School board member LaMar Lemmons said the news of the water contamination is upsetting.

He had wanted to sue the state and questioned Vitti about children’s safety. “He said we’re doing this 18-month study. My problem is what happens in the interim? Our children are being exposed to possible contamination, and that’s a health and safety risk.”

Urgent repairs

Crumbling Detroit school buildings will cost $500 million to repair. It’s money the district doesn’t have

The water-damaged, mold-infested Palmer Park Preparatory Academy was closed for months while crews replaced the roof and made other repairs.

The buildings in Michigan’s largest school district have been so neglected and so poorly maintained for so long that a new review put the price tag for bringing them up to current standards at half a billion dollars — money the district says it doesn’t have.

“We would have to dramatically cut personnel to even put a dent in this problem,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the school board’s finance committee during a meeting at the district’s Fisher building headquarters Friday morning. “And even then, we would not be able to make substantial improvement.”

The review, whose results one school board member called “tragically awful,” was conducted over the last several months by an architecture and engineering firm called OHM advisors. It assessed the condition of the 106 buildings that currently house district schools, including roofs, interiors, and systems like plumbing and electrical.

It found that nearly a third of school buildings are in an “unsatisfactory” or “poor” condition, while roughly a third are considered in good repair.

The review did not take into account 19 vacant buildings that the district owns and is responsible for securing and maintaining so that they don’t become a danger to the community.

That means that the “unbelievably frustrating” picture painted by the review “undershoots” the problem, said school board member Sonya Mays, the finance committee chairwoman.

What makes the situation even more extreme is the fact that the Detroit district does not have the same ability to borrow money for construction projects that other Michigan districts do.

When the state spent $617 million to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2016, the new law freed the new district from millions of dollars in debt that had hobbled the old Detroit Public Schools. But it put restrictions on the new district’s ability to borrow money.

Instead, the $617 million included $25 million for buildings improvements — including some pressing repairs that became national news that year when teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest building conditions, shutting down schools for days.

Vitti said much of that $25 million has been spent or is committed this year for projects like the the repair of the roof at the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, an elementary school that’s been closed for months since a leaky roof triggered a mold problem. Students at the school finished out the school year in a different building. 

“The $25 million is literally a drop in the bucket of what the overall need is,” Vitti told the finance committee.

He called for an urgent discussion to figure out which buildings should be repaired, which ones should be replaced, and which ones should be considered for closure.  

“What we’ve done in this review is at least define the problem,” Vitti said. “Now that we have solid data … we will have to think broadly and deeply” about what to do next.

Options could include returning to Lansing for additional help from the state or partnering with businesses or philanthropy to raise private funds for repairs.

Vitti noted that if nothing is done to repair these buildings, the cost of bringing them up to acceptable standards will swell to $1.2 billion by 2023.

If we don’t make a high level of investment, which frankly we do not have the revenue to do, this problem only compounds itself in the years to come,” Vitti said.

Scroll down to see the presentation Vitti gave to the finance committee, which includes specifics on which schools are most in need of work.

Enrollment push

‘The pressure is on everyone’ as Detroit’s main district advertises to attract more students

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit school board members stand with the students who will star in the district's summer ad campaign.

Detroit’s main school district has a new look.

Officials announced a new brand for the Detroit Public Schools Community District to real-live fanfare on Thursday, unveiling a new logo and tagline with a student brass band as backdrop.

After the announcement was made at Nolan Elementary School, students streamed out wearing blue tee shirts printed with the new logo, which depicts a rising sun.

“Students rise. We all rise,” reads the tagline, signaling that improvement  is coming to a district that is working to recover from decades of disinvestment and mismanagement.  Officials hope the campaign will bring Detroit families back to a district whose future depends in part on increasing enrollment.

That’s a sign of a new reality in public education, one that public relations professionals recognized around the time that policy shifts nationwide allowed more charter schools to open.

When school competition spread nationally, the phenomenon was especially pronounced in Michigan, where parents can enroll their children in charter schools or suburban schools that will accept them. State law puts few restrictions on where charter schools can be opened and who can open them.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the re-branding effort was inevitable in a state that fosters competition between school districts.  Vitti has criticized Michigan’s charter school laws, but has charged head-on into the battle to enroll students nonetheless.

“I think the pressure is on everyone,” Vitti said. “Students can move from one district to another. It’s incumbent on every school district and every school to go into a marketing mode.”

The district paid $100,000 for the $300,000 campaign, which was put together by BLVD Content and Real Integrated, marketing and strategy firms that have worked for Ford, the City of Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Detroit Opera Theater. The firms donated about $180,000 worth of work, the district said, with the non-profit United Way chipping in about $20,000 through the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The brand includes television commercials and a new logo and tagline.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit’s main district has a new logo.

This is not the first time Detroit’s main district has used advertising to attract students. In 2010, the “I’m in” campaign won a top national marketing award. The old Detroit school district, which now exists only to pay off legacy debt, reported that 830 students enrolled as a result.

Nora Carr, former president of the National Association of School Public Relations, says schools are “borrowing a page from the private sector” by investing in brands. “Rarely mentioned a decade ago, branding is becoming part of the educational lexicon,” she wrote in a 2009 article.

While enrollment in Detroit’s main district has declined, it remains the largest in the state. That makes it easier to raise funds, but harder to implement a brand widely enough that it will become ingrained in parents’ perception of the district.

Many charter schools in the city are far smaller. Take The Detroit Achievement Academy, a 200-student charter school on the city’s northwest side. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder, said in a text that she does the branding herself. “We don’t pay anyone externally,” she added.

District officials say the brand projects “a new beginning for traditional public education in Detroit.” His administration has set lofty academic goals, which it hopes to reach through an overhauled curriculum, but it remains too early to judge whether these efforts will move the district forward.

Boosting enrollment is a crucial piece of the puzzle. A plan unveiled earlier this month called for commercials on television, billboards and buses, part of an effort to bring back some of the roughly 30,000 students who wake up every day in the city and go to school in the suburbs.

The commercials will be based on a promotional video, also released Thursday, in which rapper Big Sean, a graduate of Cass Technical High School, speaks over images of actual Detroit students playing sports and studying. They build on a tradition of commercials that emphasize Detroit’s hard-knock reputation, with the rapper dropping lines like “we are a city that runs on ambition and grit.”

The video and other advertising materials can be seen on the district’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the contribution from United Way. The non-profit contributed $20,000 to the branding campaign.