The Orleans Parish School Board plans to spend $800,000 on filters to remove lead from water at drinking fountains and kitchen faucets, according to board documents released Wednesday.

The board will vote at a meeting Thursday to set aside money for the filters.

The school system doesn’t know whether there’s a problem with lead in the water at its schools. The Orleans Parish and the Recovery school districts announced last year they would test school drinking water for lead, but they never did.

They said they changed course because experts told them lead levels can fluctuate over time and filters would be more cost-effective.

But documents obtained by The Lens showed school district employees dropped the testing plan after the Sewerage and Water Board raised questions about it and argued they should allow more lead in the water before taking action.

The Orleans Parish school district started to look for a company to supply the filters this summer. The bids were opened in September.

The school systems have said the filters will be installed this fall. A spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish School Board did not answer a question about whether that’s still the plan,  saying additional information will be provided at today’s meeting.

Drinking fountain filters will cost between $584 and $694 each, depending on how many the district purchases. Kitchen system filters are much more expensive, at $5,999 each.

Certified filters remove 99 percent of lead from water, and residential filters cost less than $50.

But the district wanted a system that would protect students during “boil water” advisories, which have occurred several times in the last few years when power outages have caused the city’s water pressure to drop. Those warnings have led to school cancellations.

Testing plans announced, then abandoned

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “strongly recommends” schools test drinking water for lead.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. Research has shown they can be harmed even at low levels that in the past didn’t raise concern.

“The worst lead in water tends to occur in schools and in daycares because this water sits for long periods,” allowing lead to seep in from fixtures and pipes, said Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech University.

New Orleans school leaders announced last fall they would test for the neurotoxin and told the Sewerage and Water Board to let them know if they had any input. They did.

School district leaders wanted to take action if a particular water source had at least 10 parts per billion of lead. Water board officials thought they should use 20 parts per billion, the EPA’s action level for water fixtures in schools and daycares.

The school districts ended up raising their threshold to 15 parts per billion, the action level for public water systems.

Both are substantially higher than the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation to shut off any school water fountain with a lead level higher than 1 part per billion.

The water board also wanted to collect samples alongside the company hired by the school districts. That led the head of the company to raise the possibility of dueling test results.

He told school officials he thought the water board would challenge his results if they showed lead in the water. And if the water board found lead but he didn’t, he wondered if it would share those results.

At some point, school officials talked to experts about what they should do. They said tests only show lead levels at a particular time, and contamination can spike when underground pipes are disturbed during roadwork.

So it made more sense to focus on eliminating any source of lead, according to the school districts.

Edwards agreed. “What’s the point of finding problems that already exist?” he asked.

“Here’s the thing about testing in schools,” he said. “You can’t undo the harm that’s been done. You can only prevent future harm.”

The filters will be installed by EcoWater Systems in 87 buildings owned by the Orleans school system. A handful of charter schools located in private buildings, such as churches, can buy filters at the group rate, but they will have to foot the bill.

Each system has replaceable filters, which range in price from $113 for a three-pack for drinking fountains to $399 for a kitchen unit.

The Orleans Parish School Board consulted EcoWater in writing the bid specifications.

Mike Gullickson, who works for EcoWater, said Wednesday the company has not signed a contract.

He estimated it will take two to three months to install the filters, depending on class schedules and when contractors can access each building.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...