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Responsbility for schools [Editorial]

The Aegis

It comes as little surprise that two of the oldest Harford County Public Schools buildings have water sources – such as pipes, fixtures, fountains – that tested positive for lead at unacceptably high levels.

The tests for lead in the water sources of schools across the state began in earnest in the spring, after the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation last year to require it, followed by the publication of regulations for how the tests are to be done and what steps are required, if positive tests are found.

Any water sources within a school that have lead levels of more than 20 parts per billion must be remediated, according to the law.

Our immediate question is: What took so long?

Ingestion of lead in unsafe amounts can cause myriad health issues. Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning, which studies have shown can be deadly. Or, it could result in an array of negative health effects, including reduced IQ, impaired growth, hearing loss and severe neurological problems, according to the EPA.

Lead gets into drinking water through corrosion of plumbing that contains lead products such as the lead-based solder that was routinely used to join copper piping, until it was phased out. The federal government banned lead from new plumbing products in the mid-1980s.

Many school buildings, in Harford County and across the state, are older than the mid-1980s. Maryland’s new testing law and regulations apply to all buildings save those opened after April 2018, although curiously, they only apply to buildings served by public water supplies. That cuts out a number of buildings in Harford served by wells subject to the new regulation, but they are already required to be tested under the federal Lead and Copper Rule.

As we reported in The Aegis Wednesday, 11 of the Harford County Public Schools buildings constructed before 1988 have been tested, with results from four completed. Two, William Paca and Old Post Elementary, had high lead readings in a water fountain in each. One of the fountains wasn’t in use and the other, at Old Post Road, is being taken out of service, an HCPS spokesperson said. Both buildings are more than 50 years old.

The private John Carroll School in Bel Air also had high lead levels in some of its fixtures, though none were drinking water sources, a school spokesperson said. That building also is more than 50 years old.

Along with wondering why it took so long to mandate this testing and remediation, the next obvious question is: Who pays for it?

In the case of the public schools, it’s going to be their local budgets, no doubt, and this is yet another alarming trend of the Maryland state government shunting more and more school construction and repair costs onto the local school systems, and their respective county governments.

Harford County school leaders – and many elected officials – have complained about this ongoing shift in funding responsibility for several years, going so far as to warn that older buildings in need of major systemic repairs, such as boilers, roofs, plumbing, have become at risk for being unusable because of rising costs and dwindling state funding support.

A generation ago, Maryland had what many believed was a national model school construction program of shared responsibility, one where state funding for new buildings was generally around 50 percent. It’s down into the low 30s and falling, according HCPS officials, and everyone in Harford County knows from recent experiences what the state will fund often has no relation to what a community needs — the Bel Air High School auditorium controversy of some years ago being a case in point.

Maryland keeps pulling in more and more money from gambling, with more likely on the horizon from sports betting, but this supposed education funding source has been anything but, just a budget shell game shift of the money, with education spending not keeping up with actual needs statewide.

While we’re at it, we’ll pose one final question: If the state is imposing uniform standards for school water quality, where are the uniform requirements for school safety and security?

Lead in the water of many schools is inexcusable. Not having uniform safety and security systems in all Maryland schools, and a way to adequately fund them, could have even worse consequences.

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