Friday, April 28, 2017

Updated: 83% of NYC school buildings have elevated levels of lead -- check the results here -- and more confusing messages from DOE

Update: See the interview on NY1 with Dr. Marc Edwards saying there is no safe level of lead in water.  See also today's NY Times says DOE is  flushing water from affected schools in addition to other remediation efforts -- which still doesn't explain how many schools have had fixtures replaced and how many have successfully brought down lead levels below the state limits.  The NYT also takes credit for the DOE testing the water correctly with the first draw and without pre-flushing, though unmentioned is that a new  state law required all districts to retest schools according to the new protocol by October 31.  

The NYT also repeats the standard DOE quote that "there had never been a known case of lead poisoning traced to drinking water in schools" without explaining that school-age children are rarely tested for lead. Nor as far as I know has the Paper of Record ever reported on the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics that remediation be required in any school where lead levels are above 1 ppb, rather than the 15 ppb limit currently in state law.

See the DOE spreadsheet of results from testing the outlets for leaD in each school posted here.  To the right is the summary of the results.
Despite  the claim by DOE below that a more detailed breakdown of the results is available here on the NY State Department of Health  website, they don’t seem to be included in that comprehensive list– perhaps because DOE completed their testing months later than all the other districts in the state  and months after the legal deadline.

The spreadsheet they did provide has lots of important data missing, including how many affected outlets there were in each school and what actual levels of lead `were found. 

The fact that 83% of schools had at least one affected water outlet does not appear to support the rosy tone of the DOE statement below that “the number of elevations are minimal” – or the assurances that “There has never been a known case of lead poisoning due to drinking water in schools” given the fact that few children are tested for lead after age 4, and any detectable level of lead in a child’s blood has been linked to intellectual and behavioral problems.

Lead experts Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and Dr. Morri Markowitz of Montefiore Hospital, both quoted in an earlier NY Post article here, would probably not be so optimistic.  I am quoted in today's DNAinfo that the DOE should consider the need to test students for lead, especially in schools where the highest concentrations were found -- though Dr. Edwards said that might give parents false confidence since even excessive amounts of lead are removed from a child's  blood within 30 days, and after that, the damage has probably been done.  

The DOE also omits the information that I wrote about here, that the American Pediatric Association recommends remediation for any fixture or outlet where the water tests more than 1 ppb, vs. the 15 ppb that NY state has adopted -- because any detectable level of lead has been shown to have a negative impact on children's behavior and intellectual abilities.  In addition to considering the stricter standard, the city should also test water outlets in public libraries and recreation centers for lead, as Washington DC has now done.

Still, the summary available on the DOE spreadsheet is far more informative that the letter that principals are supposed to send home to parent and the statement below. Instead of mentioning the 83% figure, the letter  says this: "Using State standards, 92% of our fixtures system-wide tested below guidance. This demonstrates that we do not have any systemic issues with water in our school buildings and our remediation protocol is effective."  Again, the messages sent out by DOE is confusing.  Is this after remediation or before?  

And see this from below: "Our comprehensive remediation protocol also includes replacing fixtures with elevated results as well as piping to the walls, and placing schools with elevated results on a weekly morning flushing protocol."  Why are they still flushing the pipes if remediation has worked?  Flushing as opposed to replacement is  not an approved  strategy according to the state law or or the EPA.

Message to reporters from the DOE:

New York City water is of the highest quality and water in schools is safe for students and staff to drink. The DOE’s rigorous testing protocol was developed in partnership with City and State agencies and we recently completed water testing on all school buildings across the City. Of all of the potential drinking water sources in the 1,544 buildings that were tested for the presence of lead, 8 percent (10,633 of 132,276) of samples taken had results over 15ppb. This is lower than the statewide average of 14 percent. Additionally, the number of drinking fixtures with results over 15ppb is 1.5 percent of all fixtures that were tested. A summary is attached and a detailed breakdown of the results is available here.

92 percent of all fixtures sampled tested below the action level of 15ppb. This demonstrates that our water system as a whole is safe and reliable. All cooking and drinking water fixtures with results over 15ppb are immediately taken offline and are only placed back online once they have been remediated and results from updated tests are below 15ppb. Our comprehensive remediation protocol also includes replacing fixtures with elevated results as well as piping to the walls, and placing schools with elevated results on a weekly morning flushing protocol.

Testing began in late November and families have been receiving detailed letters with results about their child’s school on a rolling basis. Schools and families received these letters within 10 days of when the DOE received the results, and in many cases, letters were distributed within 24 hours. The letter and the complete laboratory reports are also posted on each school’s website, with translated versions available in 10 languages. We continue to host community meetings across the City to ensure all questions from families and staff are being addressed.

The documents that are being shared with schools and families include details on the City’s water source, an overview of the DOE’s testing and remediation protocols, and information from DOHMH about the health effects of lead and what parents should do if they are concerned about their child’s exposure to lead. New York City water that is delivered from the upstate reservoir system is lead free and DEP conducts over 500,000 tests annually throughout the system. There has never been a known case of lead poisoning due to drinking water in schools. DOHMH investigates cases of elevated lead levels in blood samples from children, and the most common source of lead exposure for children with elevated blood lead levels is lead-based paint.

Nothing is more important than the safety of students and staff and we remain vigilant in our testing and remediation processes. As outlined in our testing protocol and as required by the State, samples are taken on a first draw basis only after water has been stagnant for a minimum of 8 hours, and sometimes much longer. When the water runs for even a few seconds, fresh water flows through the fixture and has lower lead levels.

This round of citywide testing also included all charter schools in DOE buildings. The New York City Health Code requires child care programs, including Pre-K for All programs, to test their water for lead levels, report results to DOHMH and remediate any outlet with test results above 15ppb. Information about test results at child care programs and the status of any remediation is on DOHMH’s website, Child Care Connect.

Attributable to Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose: “Families should rest assured that water in schools is safe for students and staff to drink. As our citywide test results confirm, the number of elevations are minimal and we take immediate action to remediate all fixtures with results above 15ppb. We have shared detailed information with schools and families, and will continue to keep communities updated.”

Attributable to First Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot: “Since 2005 we have seen an 86% decline in lead poisoning cases among children. We feel confident that the DOE is taking the right actions by taking drinking fixtures that have had lead exceedances off line until they can be replaced. Generally, these elevated levels are not reflective of the water children drink throughout the day, but concerned parents should speak to their child’s health care provider.”

Attributable to DEP Acting Commissioner Vincent Sapienza: “New York City tap water is world renowned for its taste and high quality. Our scientists conduct more than 500,000 tests each year to ensure the water meets or exceeds all state and federal health and safety guidelines.”

Saturday, April 22, 2017

More grounds for removal of Paladino: violating student privacy

Austin Harig and Carl Paladino
On  June 22, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia will hold a hearing on the legal petition of the Buffalo Board of Education to remove Carl Paladino from his seat on the Board.

Though Paladino has made many outrageous and even racist comments, including most recently about former President Obama and his wife Michelle, the best legal grounds for removing him, according to the Board's attorney, is for violating law or specific Board policies.  Thus the Board is focusing its appeal on the basis of Paladino's breaching the confidentiality of discussions while the Board was in Executive Session.

Yet unmentioned so far in terms of these proceedings is how last spring, Paladino violated several student privacy laws, both federal and state, in breaching the privacy of a Buffalo high school student, Austin Harig, who ran against him in the School Board elections and lost by only 132 votes.  On election night, Paladino revealed to the media that Harig had been recently suspended, which is personal student information barred from disclosure by education officials such as Paladino by the federal law known as FERPA as well as two state laws.

See the letter below that we sent yesterday to the Buffalo Board President, Dr. Nevergold, on this issue, on behalf of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy and NYS Allies for Public Education.

Dr. Barbara Seals Nevergold
President, Buffalo Board of Education

April 21, 2017    

Dear Dr. Nevergold and the Buffalo Board of Education:

We support your efforts to remove Carl P. Paladino from the Buffalo Board of Education for official misconduct in breaching confidential discussions that occurred in the Board’s executive sessions.

We would like to add that Mr. Paladino breached the confidentiality of education records when he announced to the media that his opponent in the recent school board elections, Austin Harig, an 18-year-old high school student, had recently been “suspended from school for tardiness and not showing up while he is running for office.” [1]

This disclosure is a clear violation of student privacy, by revealing sensitive information from education records for unauthorized purposes and without the consent of the student or his parents. 

As an education official, Mr. Paladino’s disclosure of this information to the media is a violation of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) passed in 1974, as well as the NY Personal Privacy Protection Law (Public Officers Law, Article 6-A, sections 91-99) passed in 1984, and the Student Privacy law approved as part of the New York budget in 2014 (Education Law SB 6356 § 2-d. Unauthorized release of personally identifiable information.)

We urge you to include this egregious violation of student privacy and of federal and state law in your testimony and legal appeal to the Commissioner for Mr. Paladino’s removal. 

We also strongly support the thousands of Buffalo community members and New Yorkers who are calling for his removal based on his many racist statements, including his comments about the former President and First Lady. 

Yours sincerely,

Leonie Haimson, co-chair, Parent Coalition for Student Privacy
Lisa Rudley, Executive Director, NYS Allies for Public Education

Commissioner Maryellen Elia:
Chancellor Betty Rosa at  
Frank W. Miller Esq. at   

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The push for privatization continues at the state and federal level

The NY budget was signed, sealed and delivered last Monday - eight days past the deadline.

We dodged one bullet in that the Assembly managed to block lifting the charter school cap, which would have been disastrous for NYC.  Yet Foundation aid, designed to go primarily to  high-needs public schools, was short-changed once again -- with a mere $700 million added statewide.  This was less than the $900 million proposed by the Republican/IDC-led Senate, and far less than either the $1.4 billion put forward by the Democratic-led Assembly or the $1.8 billion increase recommended by the Board of Regents.  

Foundation aid was established after the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit was settled, requiring that NY funds public schools equitably.  About $3.8 billion is owed districts around the state in additional foundation aid, according to the formula, according to the NY state 
Association of School Business Officers, $4.3 billion according to the Alliance for Quality Education
Governor Cuomo not only has refused to fully fund Foundation Aid, he actually proposed eliminating it altogether starting in FY 2019 -- which thankfully, even the GOP-led State Senate refused to consider.

At the same time, funding for charter schools was increased by $50 million, while the supplement that NYC must pay to charters to pay for their rent in private space was boosted to 30% per charter student -- which will cost the DOE an estimated $8 million above what they currently must spend on charter leases.  Already, NYC pays more than $1.7 billion per year for charters for operating aid, and $40 million on leases, and this will increase that amount.

This is evidence yet again of preferential treatment for NYC charters, where we have the most overcrowded public schools in the state.  There seems to be little or no concern about the fact that currently 550,000 NYC public school students are jammed into overcrowded facilities, according to DOE data. 

Why the insistence on guaranteeing more funding and space to NYC charter schools by the Governor and the Republican-led Senate?  Is it the huge financial contributions made to these politicians from pro-charter groups such as New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, which spent $5.2 million electing Republican State Senators,  or the vast amounts received by Cuomo from the same bunch of pro-charter hedge funders ? 

Fred LeBrun of the Times-Union said it best in explaining the influence of the charter lobby in Albany and elsewhere:
It's not the charter schools I referenced above that hold the power, and certainly not the 122,000 or so young New Yorkers who attend them, predominantly in New York City. It's the relative few billionaire hedge fund investors in charters looking for the return on their investment who would have the ability to hold up our budget until they get theirs. Because they in turn have become generous contributors to the governor and the Republican Senate. Again, the political donors benefit directly from the actions the governor and senators take on their behalf.....  
I can hear the charter crowd screaming that they are also public schools, because it says so in the legislation creating them. That's a lot of hooey.... They are private schools masquerading as public schools. And until the day comes, if ever, that you the taxpayer vote on the boards running charters funded in your school district, and yearly vote where every dollar is to be spent, as happens across the state with real public schools, then charters are bogus public schools.
At the same time we are fighting the Wall Street privateers in NY, the Trump/DeVos regime want to drastically slash funding for public schools while expanding federal support to charters and private schools.  For more on what this means, see the invaluable resource  School Privatization Explained recently released by the Network for Public Education. 

It includes 13 different fact sheets that separate fact from fiction, on issues ranging from "Are charter schools truly public schools?" and "Do charter schools get better academic results than public schools?" to "Are online charter schools good options for families?

The Trump administration is considering a plan to allow federal tax credits to be granted to wealthy individuals who subsidize private and religious schools.  NPE explains how these tax credits, already authorized in 17 states, are really vouchers by a different name. In fact, they may be worse than vouchers in that in some states, wealthy individuals and corporations can actually make a profit from donating to private schools, taking a 100% credit off their state taxes while claiming a deduction off their federal taxes at the same time. 

For more on this, check out Kevin Welner's explanation of how the benign-sounding tax credits are really "vouchers on steroids" or the podcast Have you Heard?, which dissects this horrific scam in detail.

The NPE website also features an interactive map, showing which states use which particular schemes to encourage the diversion of public funds towards charters and private schools.

Meanwhile, the privatization lobby and the elected officials they support claim to be encouraging parent "choice" -- though the first choice of most parents is a sufficiently-resourced neighborhood public school that provides their children with small classes and a well-rounded education.  

And yet these are the very conditions that so many of these officials actively undermine through their refusal to fund our public schools equitably.  See how Donald Trump wants to totally eliminate Title II funds, used in NYC to lower class size, or Randi Weingarten on Trump's "Indecent Proposal" in the Huffington Post. More on how you can help stop these cuts from happening soon.