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New Orleans schools again push back deadline to finish lead filter installation

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After repeated delays, the Orleans Parish school district now estimates that lead filter installation will continue into next school year.

The Orleans Parish school district won’t finish installing long-awaited filters to remove lead from drinking water until this fall, as the district’s timeline to install them continues to stretch.

At the end of January, 246 filter systems had been installed at 30 schools, district spokeswoman Ambria Washington wrote in an email. That is fewer than half of the city’s public schools. It’s also shy of the district’s plan to complete 33 schools by the end of 2018.

“We estimate that the installing process will continue into the Fall of 2019,” she wrote.

The filters remove the neurotoxin, which young children are especially vulnerable to. Gail Fendley, the executive director of Lead Safe Louisiana, said the delay is unacceptable.

“Where’s the outrage?” Fendley wrote in an email to The Lens. “It’s been two and a half years since the OPSB acknowledged that children were at risk and started taking steps to make sure their students weren’t being lead poisoned.”

It all began in July 2016. On the same day Michigan prosecutors indicted six state officials over the city’s lead-in-water scandal, Orleans Parish School Board and Recovery School District officials promised to test school water for lead. But that never happened.

After conversations with experts, who said that preventing future lead poisoning by installing filters would be a better way to ensure that the water was safe, and the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, which argued the district should allow more lead in water before doing tests, the district decided to forego testing and install filters.

The district doesn’t actually know if it has a lead-in-water problem. It tested for lead in drinking fountains in 1989, shortly after the federal Lead Contamination Control Act became law. But it’s not clear if they’ve been tested since. The New Orleans Inspector General has criticized the city for failing to alert residents of nearby construction projects, which can cause elevated levels of lead in water by disturbing pipes and dislodging lead particles.

The Orleans Parish district and the state-run Recovery School District said they would install the filters in the fall of 2017. That fall the Orleans Parish School Board approved $800,000 to install filters in district-owned buildings. But a problem with the contracting process delayed the installations to August 2018. The district has planned to test the water after filters are installed.

In early February, The Lens asked the district for an updated list of schools that had received the filters but a spokeswoman said such a list didn’t exist, saying only that 30 schools had filters.

The district previously provided The Lens a list in December. At the time, 23 schools already had filters, and 10 schools were set to get them by the end of that month.

The Lens contacted administrators from those remaining 10 schools this week. Seven confirmed that they had received the equipment. They are: Morris Jeff Community School (elementary campus), Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep, Langston Hughes Academy, Phillis Wheatley Community School, Arthur Ashe Charter School, Andrew H. Wilson Charter School and Audubon Charter School’s Broadway campus.*

Paul Habans Charter School was supposed to receive them in December, but hadn’t yet, Crescent City Schools Chief Operating Officer Chris Hines said. Another Crescent City Schools charter, Akili Academy, had filters installed last year. But Hines said he doesn’t think they are operational yet.

InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely said Alice M. Harte Charter School is scheduled to get filters next week.*

Fendley said she hopes the district finishes installing filters as quickly as possible.

“Of all public places, schools should be held accountable for the safety of their water,” she wrote.

This story was updated after publication to include information from InspireNOLA charter schools. 

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About 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 to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.