Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith met families at Creston School on Tuesday night because the district’s bungled lead response was worst there. Smith announced a three-part plan to the unfolding water debacle.
She wants to form a community task force on drinking water and hire two sets of outside investigators – one for recent, and one for longer-term lead problems.
But Smith immediately faced tough questions at Tuesday's meeting. School board member Steve Buel objected to her supervising the investigations.
“It’s just not going to fly. This is a big deal. This is poisoning thousands of children in our school district," Buel said. "We can’t just flop this off to the superintendent and say, ‘Investigate what’s taking place.’”
Smith later agreed the board should supervise.
It didn’t get easier when parents had their turn.
Portland parents lined up at microphones to question – and sometimes interrogate, or just shout at – Smith. She’s trying to control the growing firestorm around the handling of high lead levels in the water at two Portland schools.
The meeting at a Southeast Portland elementary school brought tough questions from parents and board members.
Kim Sordyl highlighted a story in Willamette Week showing evidence of dozens of schools reporting high lead levels between 2010 and 2012.
“Forty-seven school buildings had high levels of lead and PPS failed to disclose it. It turns out that one of them is my school, where my children attend – Ainsworth," Sordyl said. "Why is it that PPS has to be caught by the media before they’re honest with us?”
Smith responded that some situations get solved between departments and schools, without her involvement.
“Like many of our interactions with facilities and with our safety department happens directly between schools," Smith said, "and our safety department investigating a specific situation that is then mitigated and communicated back to the school.”
“I don’t know what that means!” an audience member shouted in response.
OPB obtained emails this week showing internal discussions of lead problems, dating back years. School-level administrators were advised to keep students and staff from drinking out of sinks, for instance. That was news to Gwen Sullivan – the president of the Portland teachers’ union.
“The whole idea about sinks – not using the water in the sinks – nobody’s ever told us that,” Sullivan said at the meeting.
Some parents said they weren’t angry when the meeting started, but they got that way as the complaints mounted.
“Lead is running …. through the blood of our kids,” said Mike Southern, a parent of kids he says will likely attend Rose City Park should boundaries change later this year. Rose City Park is the other school with recently-announced high lead levels.
Southern called for Superintendent Smith to resign, or for the board to fire her.
“School board, you need to act. And Carole Smith, you need to go," Southern said.
He also called for a criminal investigation into the district’s response.
Many parents expressed frustration, fear and anger. Creston parent Jessica Lindley wanted to know what the district will do for kids who test with lead in their blood.
“I know there’s a lot of discussion about what we’re going to do about filters and these kinds of things, but our kids have been exposed," Lindley said. "How do you make that right with these kids, because that’s the most important thing in this room. How do you fix that?”
Health officials from the Multnomah County described the kind of investigation they typically do. Carole Smith also promised a web page with information about mitigation efforts that will happen at specific schools.
While many parents beat up the district for its handling of the lead-tainted water discoveries, others focused on what happened after the district shut the water off.
The district provided thousands of bottles of water. But schools handled that change differently.
Tamberlee Tarver has kids at two different Portland schools. She said the water was rationed to one of her kids.
“One, they could have an abundance of water. The other one? They gave her one bottle, and if they had it all, they had to throw their bottles away and they didn’t get another one,” Tarver said.
Smith tried to get ahead of complaints about her solution to the lead-tainted water problem, but at times faced shouts as she tried to speak.
Smith has another meeting Wednesday night at Rose City Park – another school affected by high lead levels in the drinking water.