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Ed board puts lead, radon testing rules on fast track

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - A controversy about lead in drinking water at Portland schools has led to new state rules requiring testing plans for all schools across the state.Oregon's Board of Education is fast-tracking adoption of a new rule that requires schools to test for lead and radon and report those results to the public.

The rule came on the heels of a scandal in Portland Public Schools over lead in drinking water that went unreported, and a directive by Gov. Kate Brown.

“I think an additional layer of checks and balances when we are talking about student safety so I think this will make parents feel much better,” said Board Chairwoman Miranda Summer.

The board heard a first reading of the rule Thursday and plans adoption Aug. 17. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Aug. 2. The requirement will entail additional costs to schools and the Oregon Department of Education. The Legislative Fiscal Office is working on an estimate on what those costs will be. Legislative leadership has asked the Emergency Board to allocate money to pay for it.

Brown in April directed the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority to review existing requirements for environmental testing and address the problem of lead in drinking water.

During the review, health and education officials learned that neither the education department nor the health authority has the power to require schools test for lead, said Emily Nazarov, operations policy analyst with the education department’s government and legal affairs section.

'Unfunded mandates?'

The health authority has authority to require testing of public water systems, but schools are excluded from the agency’s jurisdiction. The proposed rule would require school districts, charter schools and education services districts to conduct lead and radon testing and to submit an environmental monitoring plan to ODE for keeping water, air and physical spaces safe for students and staff.

The health authority already had authority to require schools to test for radon, but the new rule will provide comprehensive guidance to schools on all of the testing required. Schools will be required to report their test results to the education department and to the community annually.

“I’m supporting of this, but I am also thinking this is like the iceberg with only the tip visible and there is a lot of it unseen, and it can become very quickly a nightmare,” said School Board Member Samuel Henry.

Henry said if the Legislature doesn’t approve additional funding for implementing the rule it could be another one of those “famous unfunded mandates.”

The agencies asked schools to test for lead during the summer. All of the districts have either completed or are in the process of testing, Nazarov said. The agencies recommend that schools identify sources of lead, stop access, communicate results to staff, students, parents and the community and mitigate and repair the problem.

“Districts are doing a lot of this already,” Nazarov said. “Portland (Public Schools) mentioned at one of the meetings one of their learning points is make sure you are documenting this. Repairs are done. People leave organizations, and nobody knows that the repair was done or when it was done, and that information is lost. This is a way to make sure there is a record that the community has access to and that that info is available.”

By Jill Rehkopf Smith
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