Lots of lead, no transparency in Elizabeth schools

ELIZABETH, NJ — Elizabeth School District has, according to many parents, done too little too late when it comes to lead testing.

Lead testing results from the district’s 41 schools show that 37 of those schools have elevated levels of lead in water sources throughout the schools, with several having alarmingly high levels.

The state-regulated limit for lead is currently 15 parts per billion.
According to the results, several schools in the district had numbers well over 200 parts per billion.

Parents in the district expressed their concern at the Sept. 22 of the Elizabeth BOE, with many admonishing Elizabeth Superintendent of Schools Olga Hugelmeyer, along with BOE members, for not addressing an issue that district parents have repeatedly voiced concern about in the past.

Hugelmeyer did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment.
Christina Cunha-Moreira, a parent advocate who has two children who attend Elizabeth schools, and candidate for the Elizabeth BOE, has been an advocate for the district’s students for years, attending every board meeting, posting pertinent information online for parents and speaking out against what she believes is a lack of transparency from school board officials.

At the meeting, Cunha-Moreira addressed the board, telling them that although she, along with other parents, had asked the district to test for lead repeatedly, the district had ignored these requests. Furthermore, said Cunha-Moreira, the BOE chose not to act until the state Board of Education adopted regulation for lead testing throughout the state on July 13. “It’s not because they wanted to test, it’s because they had to,” said Cunha-Moreira.

Under the new regulations, New Jersey school districts who have not yet conducted lead testing have one year from the July date to perform lead testing.
The testing regulations will also require all school districts to test their water used for drinking and cooking at least once every six years.

Districts that test within 365 days will be eligible for state reimbursement through $10 million allocated for water testing in the state budget.

Cunha-Moreira said that after the testing was done, she emailed the board repeatedly for the results and was told that they would be posted immediately. She also filed several OPRA requests and was denied repeatedly.

According to Cunha-Moreira, the results were posted to the school district’s website three weeks after they came out. “This is not what I call immediately,” she told the board. “Where is the transparency that this new majority speaks of?”
Moreira also told the board that when she tried to discuss the lead issue with BOE vice president Maria Carvalho, Carvalho had told her that it was a “dead issue” and she needed to “let it go.”

Carvalho, who was present at the meeting, did not address the issue, instead leaning forward into the microphone, saying, “For the record, I do not use the words ‘dead issue.’ Thank you.”

Sima Farid, another parent in the district, also addressed the board, telling them that she was alarmed by the lead testing results. “These are unacceptable water levels,” she said. “Our kids are drinking this stuff.”

Farid cited 15 tainted water sources in one school, along with 25 tainted water sources in two other schools in the district. She also admonished the board for ignoring parents’ requests for lead testing back in March. “Unacceptable lead levels have been in the schools,” said Farid. “The schools were open all summer long. Those kids were drinking lead water. The same way you turned your back on the district’s students, employees and staff, I feel that you need to respect us and provide an alternate water source.”

Cunha-Moreira told LocalSource during a phone call that schools are supposed to notify parents of lead testing results, as well as informing parents that the results have been posted and the location of that information. But according to Cunha-Moreira, neither was done. “I did not receive anything from my kids’ school,” she said. “How would a parent even know to ask for it from the school? They have not made that information available for the parents,” she said of the BOE.

Cunha-Moreira expressed her concern regarding the new lead testing regulations. “After this round of testing, they don’t have to test for six years,” she said. “Even lead levels of 10 or 13 are bad, and after six years, that could go up to 15,” said Cunha-Moreira, citing the legal limit.

Cunha-Moreira also noted that Hugelmeyer is simply not reachable. “She is impossible to reach,” said Cunha-Moreira. “She won’t respond to me. She has never responded to any email I have ever sent. They say they want parental involvement, they say they want you to come to the meetings, and then when you do, they cut you off.”

Maria Lorenz, also a parent of several children in the district, a parent advocate, and school board candidate, told LocalSource in a phone call that there has been no communication regarding the lead problem in the schools. “There has been no communication at all,” Lorenz said. “It’s bad enough that three years ago they knew they had lead in the water and didn’t say a word,” she said, referring to lead testing done in the district in 2013. “They got caught with their pants down.”

Lorenz said she had also put in repeated OPRA requests but with no success. “we were digging, and then Hugelmeyer put out a statement,” she said.

Lorenz also criticized Hugelmeyer’s inaccessibility to parents. “Why is it that we have a superintendent?” she said. “They are supposed to communicate.”

In addition, Lorenz maintains that there is no way to reach the district’s new spokesperson, Pat Politano, ostensibly hired to open the lines of communication between parents and the district. “He’s making $50,000 to be a spokesperson, but there’s no way to reach him,” said Lorenz.

Indeed, LocalSource can confirm that there is no contact information listed for Politano on the district’s website.

Lorenz believes that the district delayed testing until they found out definitively whether they would be reimbursed by Gov. Chris Christie. “The district wanted to make sure they got reimbursed before they tested for lead,” Lorenz said. “They put our kids at risk and waited to test. This district gets half a billion dollars in state and federal funding. They have no excuse for not testing.”

At the meeting, Lorenz brought up the possibility of district students receiving bottled water until the lead issue is remediated. According to Lorenz, the Elizabeth BOE donated bottles of water to students in Flint, Mich. after schools there were found to have high levels of lead in their water. And although Lorenz lauds donating bottles water to other districts, she is concerned about Elizabeth’s own. “What about our kids?” she said.

A specific timeframe to remediate the lead issues throughout the district has not been given, although board members discussed at a recent meeting a general timeframe of approximately six weeks.

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