Lead in School Water: District Contamination Plan Frustrating Michigan Parents

Testing at affected building only began after a formal complaint from teachers. / Michigan Parents Vent Frustration and Concerns Over District’s Handl

This photo shows the outside of Okemo's Public Montessori School at Central on December 12, 2023.
Okemos Public Montessori School at Central, Dec. 12, 2023 (Susan J. Demas/Michigan Advance)

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Several Michigan parents, a former principal and even a young student all expressed their frustration earlier this month to the Okemos Public Schools Board of Education over the district’s handling of lead-contaminated water in one of their buildings, although it appears that complaints from staff members had been building for months.

“The grievance is in reference to the many documented and discussed building condition concerns faced by the staff (and students) at OPM in the areas of safety, security, communication, and essential maintenance,” stated an Oct. 6 formal grievance filed by the Okemos Education Association, the union representing the district’s teachers.

Initial water testing at the Okemos Public Montessori (OPM) building, located at 4406 Okemos Road in Meridian Township, discovered lead levels of 5 parts per billion (ppb) in one location and another of 9 ppb in another. However, follow up testing on Dec. 5 confirmed that one room in the building tested at 49 ppb.

While Michigan’s action level for lead is 15 ppb, MDHHS says that no level of lead is considered safe for drinking water. Exposure to lead can cause brain and kidney damage, behavioral problems and even death, among a litany of other health problems.

The district said it has followed the recommendations of both the MDHHS and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), including closing down the affected fixtures and posting “not for drinking” signs there, replacing faucet aerators, continually flushing the system and providing filtered water at bottle filling stations.

Okemos Public Schools is in an affluent suburb of Lansing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the median household income in Okemos is $86,354, which is more than $20,000 above the state median of $63,202. The district, meanwhile, receives $13,465 in per-pupil funding, more than $500 above the state average of $12,816, according to the latest data from the Michigan Department of Education.

At the Dec. 11 school board meeting, the first since the Michigan Advance reported on the discovery last week, board members heard directly from parents about their concerns, who complained about a lack of transparency in how the contamination was communicated as well as the steps they need to take to know if that contamination affected their child.

“I feel really unheard and angry at the district and their answer to the issue about the water in the building, telling kids not to drink the water. Come on, give me …” said Kelly McCarty, the mother of two students at OPM, her voice breaking with emotion. “I’m not making sense because I’m really upset. Transparency. The emails that we’ve been getting are saying that they’re transparent, but they’re not. I don’t think people in the community realize that there are classrooms that tested in the 40 parts per billion with lead in the water. We’re talking about higher than Flint levels and, ‘Oh, don’t drink that water. You’re fine.’ They were telling us that getting our kids tested was on us If we wanted to. Not, ‘You should get your kid tested.’ No, that’s not good enough for me.”

That issue, whether or not OPM students should get their blood tested to determine what level, if any, of lead contamination they might have received, remains in dispute between what the district has communicated to parents and what the Ingham County Health Department (ICHD) said it recommended.

Dr. Nike Shoyinka, ICHD’s chief medical health officer, told the Advance this month that the department did pass along a list of recommendations to the district that included testing.

“Students within the classrooms where elevated lead levels were detected in their faucets should get tested, and we have provided them with resources,” she said. “Every family who had a child in those classrooms was contacted directly by the school as far as we know and told that there were elevated levels. They should be in contact with their pediatrician and /or come to the health department. ‘Here are resources for lead testing.’ That is how it was put to them.”

However, that was a change from earlier in the week when ICHD Health Communications Specialist Victoria Coykendall said the department had said students “could” get tested.

When asked about the discrepancy, both Coykendall and Shoyinka said the confusion was whether or not the recommendation applied to all students in the building, or only those students in rooms where elevated lead levels were discovered.

“There’s no school-wide recommendation that everyone should get tested,” said Coykendall. “It was on a classroom-by-classroom basis. What we said was that there’s no indication for every child in the whole school. But within those classes where there were elevated levels, and at the time that we got involved with this, the school had already taken those measures.

“So by the time we were talking to them, they had already started contacting them. So there was never, ‘Your students should do this, this is what you should do,’ because they had already done it,” Coykendall said. So we are in full agreement of what their response was with regards to the students within those classes.”

Okemos Public Schools Communications Specialist Shannon Beczkiewicz told the Advance that the district nurse did make calls to the families in the one room that tests showed the highest level of lead, known as the Paw Paw Room.

“Students in classrooms that tested above the 5 ppb level for action received a letter from Superintendent John Hood with more information specific to that room,” she said.

But a communication from Hood to the Paw Paw room parents dated Nov. 28 makes no mention about students getting tested. At that time, the room tested at 38 ppb. A follow-up communication on Dec. 7 stated that the room had tested at 49 ppb. It also made no mention of students getting tested for lead contamination.

To that point, Beczkiewicz provided a copy of a Dec. 6 letter from the ICHD that she said “does not include blood lead testing.” In the letter, the health department says the district had “been swift in implementing layered mitigation measures to ensure no further exposure to lead will occur. ICHD applauds OPS’s proactive efforts to engage families through open communication and fully supports the continuation of this transparent and open dialogue.”

It then went on to list recommendations to “maintain a safe and healthy environment for students and staff,” that included continued water testing and flushing of the system, and only allowing students to drink from filtered bottle-filling stations. It also said that ICHD had “shared information with OPS about its lead testing program and other ways to receive a lead test. We encourage those with concerns to contact their primary care provider to address any questions.”

Beczkiewicz said when the district’s nurses called the families with students in the Paw Paw room, they shared resources and information about testing either through the Ingham County Health Department or their family physician, but left the decision to the families.

“We thank the Health Department for waiving the fee for our students above the age of 5. We defer to the experts at the Health Department for medical recommendations, which were to offer information and resources to the families,” she said.

But parents said at the Dec. 11 meeting the lack of clear and consistent communication was what they were most disappointed about.

“The ball has been dropped and it is disappointing,” McCarty told the board. “I have a kid that is in kindergarten, so she will be at OPM for four or more years and has already been there for three years because of preschool. I am scared to think what is going to happen to her in that building with her health and safety. I’m scared for the teachers, the staff, the former students in that building and nobody has an answer except, ‘Don’t drink the water. We’re going to post some signs. We’re going to add some filters.’ That is a joke.”

Parent Stephanie Winslow said the district’s response was slow to get started and remains lackluster, expressing frustration that testing didn’t occur until November, several months after problems were first noticed.

“At the beginning of the school year, concerns were raised about discolored water,” she said. “Meanwhile, each morning I double and triple triple check backpacks to make sure that we have water bottles from home — extra ones on gym days, which are tomorrow. So I need to make sure that those are washed, ready to go, and cross my fingers that my 5-year-old can navigate the drinking fountains’ ‘not for drinking’ signs posted on problem fixtures and hope that he can reach the refillable stations and hopefully the green lights are on throughout the day. Today, I was informed by my third-grader that the light was red at his refilling water station. This is unacceptable. The administration needs to take action.”

ICHD Recommendations for Okemos Public Schools1262023

However, it appears that the administration only took action after a formal grievance was filed by the Okemos Education Association, the union which represents the district’s teachers. When asked about the grievance, Beczkiewicz confirmed its existence, but said it was “about water in some classrooms that was rust or brown colored,” even though it listed many other issues of concern.

The grievance obtained by the Advance, which was verified by an official with the Michigan Education Association, states that “well documented” issues had remained unaddressed since the start of the school year in August and had prompted a walk-through of the building on Sept. 21 which found the working conditions to be “appalling.” It said that a summary of the unacceptable and unresolved issues was then given to Hood and other administrators the following day, but remained unresolved.

Among the concerns in the grievance were air and noise pollution being caused by ongoing construction, asking that it only be held on nights and weekends when children were not in the building. It also requested that rooms be cleaned daily of “any residual construction debris and dust,” noting that requests to have areas cleaned were not being met. It further said carpets in “both [teachers] Mary Weir & Christine Batora’s rooms need to be replaced immediately due to mold,” and that water testing “needs to occur wherever dishes are being washed and drinking fountains, particularly in the preschool rooms,” with results shared with the staff.

The first water testing at OPM wasn’t conducted until Nov. 8, nearly a month later.

The grievance also noted that requests to the district’s work order system, known as FMX, were not being completed regularly.

“At times, requests are marked as completed when they have not, in fact, been completed,” said the memo. “This system needs to be addressed and a plan in place so that confidence can be restored. The students and staff of Okemos schools deserve a safe, secure, clean, and healthy building in which to teach and learn, and clearly this standard has not been met at Okemos Public Montessori.”

The person responsible for running the FMX system is the district’s operations manager, which up until Dec. 1 was Mark Fargo. However, he has since left the district, which is now advertising for his replacement. When asked if there was a correlation between Fargo’s departure and the issues coming to light at OPM, Beczkiewicz would only say she “cannot comment further on personnel issues.”

Meanwhile, the cause of the contamination remains undetermined.

The district has indicated it was likely connected to construction work that took place in the building, which resulted in lead solder that was used to join the copper pipes to be released into the water supply. ICHD Director of Environmental Health Rod McNeill told the Advance that while that is the most likely scenario, it will take time and patience to fully answer that question.

“We don’t know for sure what the source is at this time, and quite frankly, we may never know for sure what the source was, but it takes a long time to rebuild that scale on piping,” he said, referring to the phosphate coating on the inside of a pipe that help prevent lead from older solder being leached into the water itself.

“And the only way to do that is to have water moving through the system, thus our recommendations to have them flush all the faucets for 10 minutes every day that they’re there in the morning, when they first get there. That’s to keep that phosphate chemical continually being refreshed in that distribution system, and in those faucets and supply lines throughout that building. And over time, that will replace that scale and thus protect the water from the piping and the fixtures and such. But that could take weeks, months. It’s not a quick chemical process. It takes a while.”

Being the oldest building in the district, OPM is likely to have more of the outdated piping and fixtures that contain lead. That was precisely why former OPM Principal Sue Hollman told the board she was angered that the $275 million bond approved by voters in 2022 didn’t contain any substantive upgrades for the building.

“I was the principal here at Okemos Montessori for 14 years, and I’m currently the chair of the Okemos Education Foundation,” she said. “So, as you can tell, I’m extremely invested in this community and school district. I came to you last year as you were finalizing the proposal for the bond, I was disappointed and angry. Central, the oldest building in the district, was not included in the proposal in any meaningful way. Apparently, the plan is that in eight to 10 years when we have the next bond, Central will be included in that. And I guess that was supposed to be a good thing and I’m supposed to be happy about that. I wasn’t. I was angry then and I’m angrier now.”

Hallman said while the Okemos district likes to tout the phrase “21st century learning and 21st century buildings,” that falls short when it comes to the students and staff at Central.

“This part of the building you’re in is a hundred years old and the school is 80,” she said. “When I was principal, we all knew about the asbestos in the building, which prohibited many updates. The poor air quality, the leaky roof, it seemed we always had a bucket somewhere collecting raindrops. You’d think these concerns alone would’ve qualified us under one of the bond bullet points, which is listed on the website. And I quote, ‘Replacing and expanding aging facilities while addressing critical needs.’ Apparently, that’s for all schools except for Central, the oldest building in the district.”

Hallman also didn’t accept that the lead contamination was necessarily due to something recent.

“The community has been told it’s due to the construction in the vestibule office area,” she said. “And it’s a nice clean explanation that may sound good to the general public, but the truth is it’s an old building. And it appears with no meaningful long-term plan for Central, things like this are going to continue to happen.”

Hallman compared the current bond plan for Central to painting over a 15-year-old car to avoid fixing the problems.

“So, I’m here tonight to let you know that I’m going to continue to be here until a meaningful plan to keep our kids and staff safe is put in place, as well as a plan to create an equitable facility and learning environment for students and staff. That means in [the] short-term, putting filters in every faucet in this building. There needs to be a filter for our kids. And we need a plan, a real plan, on what to do for an 80-year-old building that needs to be developed now, not 10 years from now.”

Hallman, speaking to the Advance this month, said she understands that the school board and administration aren’t to blame for the state of the building, but they do have control of what happens from this point moving forward.

“If they come up with a plan now, and it takes eight years to fulfill the plan because of whatever, OK, fine. I’m not gonna argue with that,” she said. “I don’t know the ins and outs of the building and engineering and financing. But to wait eight or 10 years and then start to make a plan, which then will take a few more years to put into place, is not in my opinion okay. I just think it’s a shame that the whole ‘21st Century learning in 21st Century buildings’ just kind of irritated me, because we’re almost a 19th century building, quite honestly, at least the older part is pretty close to it.”

After Hallman, came the youngest speaker of the evening: 9-year-old Aster Soria, an OPM student.

“I’m here to talk about the lead in the water at my school,” she said. “I feel really scared because I drink the water and I might have gotten lead in my body. Lead is very harmful to my brain and the brains of my friends. I care a lot about my friends and the teachers at my school, I feel like this situation shouldn’t have happened and it gets everybody very worried about if they have lead in their bodies. Also, I had to get a blood test, which hurt, and I have been very worried for a while because of what’s going on.”

Soria, who could barely reach the microphone, said the contamination and the resulting actions have given her bad dreams.

“Kids should feel safe at school and be OK with drinking water at school,” she said. “It makes me more worried about drinking water at school, so I don’t drink water at school anymore. I feel less safe at school and that I cannot trust a lot of things at school anymore.”

As she sat down, the audience gave her a round of applause.

However, county health officials downplay concerns over contamination continuing at OPM.

“The exposure pathway to kids being exposed to lead has been stopped,” said Shoyinka. “We’re very confident  of that. Now, the source of the lead and getting that straightened out, that’s going to take time because that’s a complicated thing. And you try a solution and you give it some time, see if that works. If that doesn’t work, then we start exploring other [options]. You’re ruling things out. It’s a process of elimination and it takes weeks, months to do that.”

Shoyinka also notes that rules surrounding lead content and exposure have been changing, meaning issues like those in Okemos, one of the more affluent districts in the state, are likely to start showing up elsewhere.

“The rules for schools [are] also changing in the sense that every school is now mandated to have filters at every faucet,” she said. “And that goes into place in April, I believe.”

Michigan’s Clean Water Drinking Act, known as the Filter First Legislation, is a bipartisan package of bills signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in October requiring Michigan schools and childcare centers to install filtered-faucets, develop a drinking water management plan and conduct routine sampling and testing to ensure children have access to safe drinking water.

Concerns about lead in drinking water have taken on greater scrutiny in the aftermath of the water crisis in Flint, which began in 2014 when state-appointed emergency managers tried to save money by switching the city’s water supply to the Flint River without implementing anti-corrosion treatments. The old pipes then leached lead into the city’s drinking water, with some homes eventually testing at well over 1,000 ppb, causing widespread health issues, including elevated lead levels in the blood of children.

While the situation in Okemos isn’t at all at that level of seriousness, because children are involved, the concern is much more amplified, most especially because the source of the contamination has yet to be identified.

The MDHHS says that children exposed to lead may have lower IQ scores, decreased academic achievement, increased problems with behavior and attention related disorders as well as decreases in hearing and kidney function. Those potential problems become more likely with increased exposure, with a blood test seen as the most reliable method to determine the extent of that exposure.

That was one of the motivations behind bipartisan legislation also signed in October by Whitmer that guaranteed the screening of minors for lead poisoning in Michigan. The legislation requires all children be tested for lead poisoning between 12 and 24 months of age, while also allowing for parents to opt out if they choose to do so.

In addition to Flint, Benton Harbor also suffered from extensive lead poisoning, while other Michigan communities have faced high rates as well, including Hamtramck and Grand Rapids. In 2021, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that Michigan ranked the third highest in the nation for children with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lead exposure is especially dangerous for children under age 6 because their bodies are rapidly developing.

Back in Okemos, the administration had scheduled a Zoom meeting for Dec. 14, with the plan of being joined by Phillip Peterson from the district’s water testing company Environmental Resource Group. The district also is coordinating with the Ingham County Health Department to have a representative there.

“We realize that our community has questions and concerns, and we want to offer a forum to address those,” stated the district in an email. “The focus of this meeting is to discuss the water at OPM, but we understand that other families may also have questions.”

Following the frustration and anger expressed at the Dec. 11 meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Stacy Bailey, who was running the meeting in the absence of Superintendent John Hood, felt that something needed to be said that night. While the school board format does not allow for members to directly respond to comments made during the meeting’s public comment, Bailey did speak to the concerns toward the end of the evening, saying the district’s commitment was to come together and find solutions.

“That’s our goal, to connect with those that are impacted, to make sure that everyone comes together at the table and to make sure that it’s a transparent and open process,” she said. “So that’s what I wanted to share with all of you. I don’t have the answers, but I know that with everyone in this room, and in this space, and in this community, we will find a solution so that our community members, our students, and our families feel safe and healthy coming to school.”

Michigan Advance is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Michigan Advance maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Susan Demas for questions: info@michiganadvance.com. Follow Michigan Advance on Facebook and Twitter.

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