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Local News

Okemos Schools lays out action plan for aging building with lead contamination 

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Jon King, Michigan Advance

December 15, 2023


Parents and others in Okemos Public Schools (OPS) had an opportunity Thursday night to hear directly from the district’s administrators and local health officials about the lead contamination of water in one of its buildings.

As the Michigan Advance has reported, water testing at the Okemos Public Montessori (OPM) building discovered lead levels as high as 49 ppb. For comparison, Michigan’s action level for lead is 15 ppb, and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), says that no level of lead is considered safe for drinking water. 

Several parents then expressed their concerns at Monday’s school board meeting, followed by the Advance’s reporting Thursday that complaints from staff members had been building for months and testing only began after the teacher’s union filed a formal grievance.

 Okemos Superintendent John Hood 12/14/23 Zoom meeting screenshot

It was in that atmosphere that Okemos Superintendent John Hood conducted a Zoom meeting to disclose details about the situation, lay out an action plan to deal with the contamination and allow parents to ask whatever questions they had.

“As superintendent, I want to tell you that I know the buck stops here with me, and that is a responsibility that I take very seriously,” said Hood. “I’ve tried to rely on experts to help lead us, but I also want the community’s constructive feedback to lead us to further improvement. My goal is to build our relationships here and build our trust and start rebuilding trust back.”

Hood said that the safety and security of children was top of mind, and he expected that same sense of urgency from every district employee, from custodians to administrators. 

“I will be holding them accountable for a sense of urgency, communication and response to any health or safety issues,” said Hood. “And again, I’m the acting director of operations right now, so I want you to know, I’m also trying to show, by leadership, that my hands are on this now and it’s my intention to show leadership to right the ship with the concerns at Okemos Public Montessori.”

The previous operations manager, Mark Fargo, left the district Dec. 1. While officials have declined to comment on the reason for the departure, the lack of responsiveness to various operations-related concerns came up several times during the meeting. 

“The sense of urgency that was lacking from operations has been addressed,” said Hood. “The delay in testing did not meet my expectations. So I want to be very clear with you on that. I am not here to try to hide anything. My attempt and intention has been to be open and transparent in terms of our approach to dealing with the issues at the Montessori.”

Hood then disclosed a timeline of testing at OPM, indicating that prior to October, the last time testing was conducted was in 2016 following concerns about lead potentially being in the water. A report at the time by Triterra, a Lansing-based environmental consulting firm, concluded that the results did not indicate the building had lead within drinking water at levels “that exceed the EPA action level (15 ppb) at the time of testing.” 

However, it also recommended further testing.

“It is Triterra’s opinion that a more comprehensive set of sampling might be beneficial. During this sampling event, it was noted that multiple types of potential drinking water sources are present within the building. A more comprehensive sampling strategy would offer more conclusive information as to if any individual type(s) of fixture poses a concern,” stated the report.

Despite that, it is not believed that any further testing was done until issues arose this school year.

 Water testing slide for Okemos Public Montessori

As to the specific results that were found in the 2016 testing, Hood admitted those could not be located.

“I can’t find those results, but I did talk to [former Operations Manager] Steve [Lathrop] and we did confirm with Dr. [Catherine] Ash, the former superintendent, that during that time, the only recommendations were to replace some [piping] boots near the cafeteria. And that was done. So unfortunately, I don’t have that test result to share with you because that predates me and I can’t put my hands on it.”

As for the testing that took place on Oct. 19 and Nov. 8, 2023, one of the four locations tested returned with a level of 9 ppb, which was above the 5 ppb threshold set by the district as needing action. However, follow-up testing on Nov. 22, turned up two additional locations above the threshold, 7 ppb and 38 ppb. 

When testing was again conducted on Dec. 4 and 5, five rooms came back above the threshold, ranging from 6 ppb to 49 ppb. 

While the source of the contamination has yet to be determined, officials with the Ingham County Health Department (ICHD) say they are confident that the measures enacted by the district, including closing down the affected fixtures and posting “not for drinking” signs there, while providing filtered water at several bottle-filling stations, have eliminated any further possibility of children consuming lead-tainted water.

Meanwhile, the district has developed a Water Testing Action Plan that would continue those procedures as well as daily flushing of all faucets. Hood also pledged that they would communicate any additional recommendations or results building wide, not just classroom-by-classroom as had been the case, and create a website to show water and other testing results. He also authorized a deep-cleaning of the building during the winter break. 

Hood also confirmed that air quality testing in October had uncovered mold spore levels at 5%, which is above the recommended limit, in three classrooms, all due to water leaks. Two of those classrooms have already had their carpet replaced, while a third will be replaced over winter break. A fourth room will also receive laminate flooring due to an ongoing odor, although no mold concerns were found there. 

However, a persistent odor near the school’s gym, described as smelling like “cat urine,” has been reported there since at least the beginning of the school year. Hood says while comprehensive air testing has found no identifiable cause, they remain committed to eliminating it.

 Mold testing slide for Okemos Public Montessori

With all of those issues, the action plan unveiled Thursday also included the creation of  an OPM Committee made up of representatives from the school, teacher’s union, support staff, operations staff, PTO, the community at large and a local elected official. The new committee would meet monthly, according to Hood.

“Then that group can also communicate out as another layer of transparency, so you’re not just hearing things through the administrative filter,” he said. “I have no intentions of just telling you a story from one perspective. We have an older building here, built in the late forties that requires some attention. So, that group will meet monthly, they’ll hear the testing results, they’ll hear what we’re working on, they’ll hear what are the other issues in the building we’re trying to address. And they can help work together, consult and address the issues and they can help share our messaging with our community as well.”

When it came time for public questions, which took up the majority of the nearly two-and-a-half hour meeting, one parent asked why it has taken the district so long to respond to the complaints in the building.

Officials admitted, as laid out in the Oct. 6 union grievance filed by the Okemos Education Association, that complaints of discolored water were first received almost as soon as the school year began.

“We started getting questions from teachers in mid-August about discolored water, fountains and things not working,” said Shannon Beczkiewicz, the district’s communications specialist. “We cleaned and changed some aerators. We did replace one faucet as well. And this was mostly happening in mid-to-late August.”

Executive Director of Finance Liz Lentz added that they didn’t have any record of work orders in September, but said they were lacking some of those communications due to “the turnover in operations staff,” referencing Fargo’s departure. However, she said they became aware around the end of September that there were potentially still issues in some of the classrooms. 

 Okemos Executive Director of Finance Liz Lentz 12/14/23 Zoom meeting screenshot

“So we did follow up directly with a couple teachers that had complained about those issues to say, ‘Are you still having discolored water?’ One teacher for sure said, ‘No, she’s not. The water is running clear and has been running clear,’ so we appreciated that,” said Lentz. “But we said we still wanted to work to get the testing completed, and that’s when we started. Director Fargo was out on vacation at that point in time. So right away as he got back, we worked with EGLE [Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy] to start the testing.”

However, the union grievance noted that as “numerous issues remained unaddressed well into the start of the school year,” a list of unresolved complaints was compiled on Sept. 21 after a walk-through of the building found the working conditions to be “appalling.”

The union says a list of those unresolved issues and requested remedies was provided the following day to administrators including Lentz and Hood.

“We expected a resolution on all listed things by 9.29.23,” said the grievance. “Having failed to adequately address and/or respond to all of these working condition-related issues in a timely manner, the OEA has no other recourse but to proceed with the filing of this grievance per our contract.”

It would be almost another two weeks before water testing would begin, with the initial round of a two-part test starting on Oct. 19 and concluding on Nov. 8. Letters weren’t sent to parents of students in affected classrooms until Nov. 20, more than six weeks after the grievance was filed and approximately three months after the first complaints were received.

“What I want you to hear from me and to know is that I was not happy with the lack of urgency with which we responded to requests for assistance at the Montessori,” said Hood. “I also want to tell you that I see the union as our partner in this work and a grievance is a tool that I welcome the union using, in terms of partnering with us to make sure things are addressed appropriately so we have a safe environment for staff members and for students.”

 Dr. Nike Shoyinka 12/14/23 Zoom meeting screenshot

But the lack of urgency also meant that any potential contamination that children may have received might be beyond the ability to detect, according to Dr. Nike Shoyinka, ICHD’s chief medical health officer.

“In children, it stays within the blood system for a shorter period of time compared to adults, which usually is about 30 days. Sometimes we’d say about four to six weeks after which it is no longer detectable,” she responded when asked by a parent how long lead could be determined to be in a person’s blood.

When Shoyinka was asked why lead testing wasn’t recommended for all of the affected students, she said that particular point needed clarification. 

“The action required, that we took based on our assessment, based on the facts, is that we do deem the risk of exposure, in general to lead, to be very low,” she said. “That information was shared to every classroom where those levels were elevated, where their levels were detected, and in those spaces, resources for testing was shared and recommendations for families to also discuss with their pediatrician. 

“Now we have said as part of this conversation, no lead level is acceptable in blood, so, yes, lead testing is a good idea [and] should be done for children, and that information has been provided,” Shoyinka added. “So in the context of recommending it, the information was shared and parents can take that information and use it to access the resources that we made available. And I just want to add that those resources are still available for anyone who continues to have concerns about testing. The health department has made testing available and there’s no time limit on it.”

But many parents, like Jennifer Soria, whose 9-year-old daughter, Aster, is an OPM student who told the school board on Monday she felt less safe at school since the contamination was discovered, had more concerns after the community meeting than before.

 9-year-old Aster Soria speaking at the Okemos School Board meeting, Dec. 11, 2023 | Screenshot

“All of sudden they are now moving fast and making plans, but it doesn’t take away August, September, October and most of November that she was exposed in her classroom,” she told the Advance. “Then, to know mold is in the building for months, and that was not shared with building parents. At least three months of a director of operations not doing their job when serious complaints were coming in and this was known. And as much as the district says we are working to build trust now, I am not sure that will ever be the case. Knowing there is potential harm to a child, and not acting swiftly is inexcusable in any circumstance.” 

Soria said if the district wants to be transparent and accountable, then they need to do more to get the test results from 2016. 

“I find it hard to believe there is no record anywhere or with the facility itself. Why wouldn’t they want those results?” she asked. “The emotional and mental toll on everyone needs to be addressed as well. This includes students. Not feeling safe is traumatic.”

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.

This article is republished from Michigan Advance under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.