School Climate & Safety

To Fix Schools’ High Lead Levels, Portland, Ore., District Seeks Tax Increase

By Corey Mitchell — May 15, 2017 2 min read
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Five years after Portland, Ore., residents approved a record $482 million bond to renovate and repair dozens of schools, the school district is asking for nearly $800 million more to fix even more buildings and address dangerous lead, asbestos, and radon issues.

The district is billing the potential tax hike as a Health, Safety and Modernization Bond. Voters will decide in an election set for tomorrow.

All 90 of the district’s schools have high lead levels in the water that flows from sinks and drinking fountains, with the concentration of the potentially toxic metal exceeding federal safety standards in most buildings. Dozens of those same buildings are laced with peeling lead paint, radon and asbestos.

If residents in the state’s largest school system approve the $790 million tax hike, school leaders would dedicate $150 million—nearly 20 percent of the funds—to address those immediate health concerns along with upgrades to security and fire systems, and ensure that schools are fully accessible to children with physical disabilities.

The remaining $640 million would fund a complete renovations of four district schools.

The district says the bond’s passage is crucial to the well-being of the city’s youngest citizens. Decades of research has tied high levels of lead in blood to learning disabilities, poor classroom performance, impaired growth, and even hearing loss in children.

The crisis in Portland is similar to the situation in Flint, Mich., where the district turned off the taps in fall 2015.

In the time since Flint’s struggle captured national and international headlines, hundreds of schools in dozens of U.S. districts have identified similar problems. From coast to coast, lead-contaminated water emerged as a problem aggravated by aging buildings and plumbing. According to the Portland public schools, the average school building in the district is nearly 80 years old, and many have been around for more than a century.

Fallout from Portland’s water crisis has been widespread. It even led to the departure of longtime Superintendent Carole Smith, who came under fire last year after the Williamette Week revealed that the district failed to disclose that the drinking water at dozens of schools had elevated lead levels as far back as 2010.

The district didn’t decide to shut down schools’ drinking fountains until the paper emailed the test results to district staff and school board members. Smith, who led the district for nine years, moved up her retirement date in the wake of the report.

Students in the district have campaigned for the tax hike, staging a districtwide walk-out last fall and organizing a school board meeting last fall.

The school bond has support from many elected officials, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. Portland television station KGW reports that no organized opposition has risen in attempt to defeat the proposal.

Related Stories and Video

Water Contamination Raises Health Concerns for Flint Students

Portland, Ore., Superintendent Steps Down Amid Lead Controversy

Many Portland Schools Have Lead in Water

Photo Credit: A yard sign supporting a $790 bond measure for the Portland Public Schools in Portland, Ore., in the lawn of a home that’s just blocks from an elementary school built in 1925. Proponents say the money is desperately needed to repair and update infrastructure at the city’s schools, which last summer made national headlines after toxic levels of lead were found in school water fountains. Gillian Flaccus/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.