Every Baltimore public school will be outfitted with at least six bottled-water coolers by Friday, the system's facilities director told school officials last night, regardless of whether water from their drinking fountains has tested positive for high levels of lead.
The move is an effort to respond to concerns among parents and community groups after recent reports that drinking fountains in scores of city schools were dispensing lead-tainted water, more than a decade after the fountains had been ordered shut off, said Pradeep Dixit, the system's director of school facilities.
"Because of the hysteria over the situation and the concern that parents have, we made a decision: Let's stop everything right now," Dixit said.
Even at the 20 or so schools that have been completely renovated - including the pipes -the fountains will be replaced with coolers until more testing can be done to prove that the drinking water is safe, he said.
Dixit was addressing members of the school system's facilities committee, some of whom weren't satisfied with last night's update.
Committee Chairwoman Colene Daniel, a school board member, said she was concerned that members of the facilities staff hadn't come up with an organized way to glean from principals how many coolers should be in schools and where, and whether the water in school kitchens was safe.
"You're missing the boat," Daniel told the top facilities officials. "I don't know how else to say it."
Schools chief Carmen V. Russo said she visited some schools yesterday and was dismayed to find too many water coolers in places not easily accessible to students.
A parent liaison at Highlandtown Middle School told the committee last night that the building has six coolers for more than 1,000 students and that all are in office areas.
Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner, did not attend the committee meeting but sent a Health Department representative to express displeasure with the school system's handling of the problem.
His representative, Joanne Dull-Yeager, said Beilenson's main frustration was with the facilities management team, which was in place more than a decade ago, when the first reports listed schools needing replacement water.
"We discussed those issues then," Dull-Yeager said, "and yet we are still having this problem."
Facilities managers missed deadlines for resolving the problem, she said, and submitted reports saying fixes had been made "when in fact we knew that that had not been done."
Facilities officials did not respond to her comments.