A contractor says the lead problems are not as bad as originally thought and, after further testing to be sure, the vast majority of fixtures could probably be reopened.

This story has been updated.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - A woman expresses outrage at a community meeting on Portland Public Schools' lead-in-water issues in 2016 at Rose City Park School. Portland Public Schools is moving toward a plan to retest and reopen a majority of its water fountains and faucets after a contractor estimated that at least 90 percent of the classroom water fixtures are probably safe for use.

In the district's 90 buildings and schools, many sinks and drinking fountains have sat covered for the past two years because of fears that the water was contaminated by lead and other toxins. The district continues to spend nearly $70,000 each month on bottled water and cups as it works out a long-term plan for drinking water in its buildings.

Mike Williams, a project manager with Day CPM contractors, said the district has also replaced its fixtures regardless of whether they tested above the action level for lead.

The data collected in 2016 "has not driven what's happening now," Williams said, adding that "a very conservative approach was taken" to blocking access to the plumbing. As fixtures have been replaced and retested — about 480 of the 2,267 in the district — contractors are finding that simply removing the fixture and plumbing to the "angle stop" at the wall is sufficient to get lead below acceptable limits.

"We appear to be discovering that fact," said John Burnham, interim senior director of environmental health and safety, adding cautiously: "We're not proving it."

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - At a June 6 Health and Safety board committee meeting, from left to right, Day CPM project manager Mike Williams, Senior Director Dan Jung, Interim Senior Director John Burnham and Director Jere High speak with board member Mike Rosen (foreground).Most of Portland's school drinking water sources have been shut off since May 27, 2016. Creston and Rose City Park school communities demanded water lead testing in February and March of that year. Their schools' results — with some fixtures above Environmental Protection Agency action levels — ignited a statewide firestorm of controversy with water quality testing and action to replace fixtures at schools, parks, day cares and other facilities. The state even has a law requiring regular water testing at schools, though the details of the testing have not yet been worked out.

Portland Public Schools is on track to replace drinking water fixtures in the rest of its schools' common areas (hallways, cafeterias, etc.) within the next six months, mostly over this summer break. But that leaves the question about what to do with the 732 classroom fountains, as well as various other drinking water sources in PPS buildings.

PPS' newest school — Faubion PreK-8 School — does not have drinking water fountains or faucets in its classrooms. So, on June 6, the Health and Safety Committee of the school board weighed the various benefits and costs of either removing other schools' classroom fixtures (for about $93,000), replacing the classroom fixtures (about $350,000) or replacing classroom fixtures and cabinetry with water sources accessible to children with disabilities (about $7 million).

Board committee members debated and eventually recommended the Office of School Modernization retest all the fixtures, reopen the ones that are below the district's 15 parts per billion standard and replace the rest.

Though Office of School Modernization Senior Director Dan Jung acknowledged the plan seemed "obvious," he did note some drawbacks to reopening — and not replacing — the fixtures that test clean. These include uncertainty about new state water testing guidelines, the fact that older fixtures will deteriorate faster than new ones and uncertainty around Portland Water Bureau's changes to the pH balance of city water.

Though Julie Esparza Brown touted the benefits of in-classroom water fountains that were accessible to children with disabilities, the board members agreed that it made the most sense to wait and spend accessibility funding according to Americans with Disabilities Act priorities already being developed through another branch of the district.

"Because we've been so out of compliance, we may have bigger issues," Esparza Brown acknowledged. (Parents have long complained, for example, that students in wheelchairs are shut out of neighborhood schools built without ramps or elevators.)

Though at this point it seems unlikely that accessible water fountains in every classroom will ever be funded, the district's builders stressed that every school would have at least one accessible drinking fountain on every floor.

With the passage of the 2017 bond, the district has been replacing and retesting fixtures through a process developed by CH2M. The process calls for a replacement of the fixture then retesting and progressively replacing piping until it tests clean. Williams said that process, as well as a review of the 2016 testing results, is what he uses to base his conclusion that most of the classroom fixtures will probably be found to be safe in a new round of tests.

District prioritizes four schools for roof replacements

Portland Public Schools continues to replace roofs at its schools at a rate of about five per year. This year, Fernwood/Beverly Cleary, King and Tubman school roofs will be replaced and upgraded with earthquake-resistant features. Jackson Middle School's roof will be replaced in 2019. Rigler school was also slated to be replaced, but its contract did not receive any bids.

Office of School Modernization Senior Director Dan Jung said Rigler will go out early next year, along with the next batch of schools, to have a better chance of getting contractors.

"We need to be very careful when we put them out to bid to get competition," Jung said.

District officials cautioned that they would be reevaluating school roof replacement priorities every six months. So, depending on changing conditions or emergencies, different schools could move up the list.

Currently the schools in the next batch for full or partial roof replacements are: Sitton, West Sylvan, Oakley Green, Kelly, Richmond, Irvington, Duniway, Glencoe, Harrison Park and Chapman schools.

The roof replacements are often being paired with other improvements, such as fire sprinklers and seismic supports.

Jere High, the district's director of maintenance and operations, said this is an ongoing district issue. If one figures three to four roofs will be replaced every year and that there are nearly 100 school district buildings, "this will never end."

UPDATE (6/7/18): Jackson Middle School's roof replacement will take place in 2019. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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