CMS community expresses communication concerns over lead testing results

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the coming weeks, a group of concerned residents plan to go before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board and then hold their own public hearing calling on CMS to ensure student health and safety.

The group said they are calling out the school district over what they say is the CMS practice of keeping environmental health and other sensitive information from parents.

[CMS drinking water testing summary]

This comes after concerning lead testing results were revealed at several area schools.

Water samples were tested from drinking fountains and sinks in 58 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools elementary schools last fall.

Channel 9 learned that 26 of the schools had levels of lead above drinking water standards.

The group said CMS did not tell parents about the results from the water testing until August after months of repairs.

"It took way too long for the results of the study to be revealed and we want to know why," community advocate Joel Segal said.

School officials told Channel 9 in August it was because experts said there were not serious health concerns.

"If we had any reason to believe our kids were in harms way, we would handle this very differently," CMS superintendent Clayton Wilcox said.

"As soon as there is a study done, it really should be revealed to the board of education, but also to the community," Segal said.

[CMS LINK: Water quality in schools]

CMS parents Nakisa Glover and Segal said CMS needs to alert staff and students exactly where the involved fountains and sinks were.

"We need to be able to work with CMS," Glover said.

"This is about finding a solution. It's not about point fingers at anybody," Segal said.

Channel 9 reached out to CMS about the group's concerns.

A representative told us the district:

"looks forward to participating in any public discussions regarding the safety and well-being of students and staff." 

Eyewitness News anchor Liz Foster spoke to Wilcox about the issue when the study was released in August.

"Each time we find an issue, we will correct that issue," Wilcox said.

[Sampling and Reporting Summary]

Foster asked Wilcox why parents weren't notified after the initial findings.

“I think, first of all, because we didn't find anything that was really noteworthy or newsworthy,” Wilcox said. “If we had any reason to believe our kids were in harm’s way, we would handle this very differently. We don’t."

The Environmental Protection Agency has specific guidance for schools testing water for lead. It recommends school districts provide information to the community multiple times, including after getting results of testing.

The EPA guidance reads in part: “The timing of your communication activities is very important. Whenever public health risks are involved, public communication efforts are less complicated and generate less conflict if those potentially affected are notified in advance of important issues and events.”

As water tests continue this school year, the superintendent promised to be more transparent.

"We did hear from enough folks, that we're going to post in a more timely manner," Wilcox said.

CMS prioritized testing in schools built before 1986, which was when Congress banned lead water pipes. Elementary schools were tested first because children under the age of 6 are most at risk, even though lead is toxic to everyone.

[EPA: Reducing lead in drinking water in schools]

The district paid $229,714 to test the water at 58 elementary schools. A spokesperson told Channel 9 they were not sure how much it would cost to test water at the other 112 schools in the district.

The remaining CMS sites will be prioritized for testing based on when the school was built, officials said. The next phase will be the 32 schools and three administrative sites built before 1989 that may have lead pipes. After that, the 69 schools built after 1989 will be tested. Those include 54 elementary schools, seven middle schools and eight high schools.

Foster spoke to Brian Kasher, CMS’ former manager of environmental health on the phone Monday. He said parents should be concerned, as well as upset with CMS leaders.

“Once they knew it was a problem, I feel they had a moral, ethical and legal obligation to disclose this to the general public so that people could protect themselves,” Kasher said.

A spokesperson for CMS told Channel 9 parents with kids at elementary schools were notified about testing before it was done but not the findings.

In a previous statement, CMS leaders said in part: “Experts did not advise of any serious health concern and any needed repairs have been made. Where corrections have been made, they were related to specific fixtures, not the general water supply of any school.”

Even though CMS officials said the issues have been fixed, parents preparing to send their kids back to school in two weeks are concerned. Kasher said the concerns are valid.

“It absolutely did cause a health risk, otherwise there wouldn’t be laws against those levels being present,” Kasher said.

He told Channel 9 that when he was hired in 2005, he specifically asked about water testing.

“I was told, specifically, there’s no issues with lead. There may have been some back in the 80s, but they were all taken care of. Don’t even worry about it,” Kasher said.

CMS plans to test water at all schools. Middle and high schools will be tested this year.

Only six states require school districts to test for lead. North Carolina and South Carolina do not.

CMS voluntarily tested water to find and correct any areas with lead readings over the state and federal standards.

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