Water from a fountain? Not in Baltimore city schools

Signs above sinks

At Cecil Elementary School in Baltimore, where bone-dry water fountains stand next to brimming water coolers, several third-graders who've never drunk from the fountains puzzled over why they didn't work.

Maybe the fountains need batteries and they don't have them, one student said. Maybe the pipes are clogged, another suggested.

"We have always wondered about that water fountain," said Alexandria Francis, who along with her classmates had no clue that administrators have shut down fountains throughout the Baltimore City school system to protect kids from getting lead poisoning.

More than a decade before lead-tainted drinking water in Flint, Mich., became a national scandal, Baltimore schools found the metal in drinking water, shut down water fountains and brought in bottled water. School officials have struggled since with the inconvenience of hauling big plastic water containers, handing out and collecting small paper cups, and limiting sink use to hand washing.

Those problems, education advocates say, would never have been allowed to continue in wealthier school districts with more resources to rip out pipes and provide safe tap water. In cash-strapped Baltimore, no plan exists to renovate all city schools and remove and replace lead pipes. Students will continue to get bottled water from water coolers at most schools.

"It is the best option we have for providing clean drinking water for our kids," said J. Keith Scroggins, the chief operating officer.

A package of legislation introduced in Congress in February by Sen. Ben Cardin could provide funds for city schools to replace pipes, though its chances are uncertain in the Republican-controlled Senate. The legislation is aimed at improving municipal water systems in the wake of Flint, but the Maryland Democrat said he hopes money to fix school pipes could come through a state revolving fund if the legislation passes and the funds are appropriated.

Fixing the problem in Baltimore — replacing all the water pipes in a school — would cost millions per school, Scroggins said. By comparison, the school system now spends $450,000 a year supplying bottled water to all but six of its 180 schools.

The problem will be fixed over time, Scroggins said, as schools are renovated or rebuilt during the next decades. The city will begin breaking ground at several schools in coming months as part of a $1 billion school construction plan that will replace or renovate between 23 and 28 schools in the next four years. Those schools will join six schools that have been built in the past decade that don't have lead-tainted water problems.

But even after about $1 billion is spent, more than 100 schools will continue using bottled water.

Baltimore's water supply is considered among the highest-quality in the nation, but the pipes within schools are the problem.

Jason Botel, a former principal at KIPP Ujima Village Academy middle school, sometimes had to carry the large barrel-like bottles on his shoulder to place them around the school. He also had to find the best way to distribute and collect hundreds of little paper cups each day.

"If the elevator went down, then it meant carrying those big heavy Deer Park water bottles," Botel said. "It was diverting energy away from teaching and learning. ... There was a lot of work making sure there were enough recycling and trash cans" for the paper cups.

Cecil Elementary's cafeteria uses very little water because it doesn't prepare school lunches on site. Each lunch comes in a plastic foam container in which it is warmed up and served to students. Tap water is used to wipe down the cafeteria tables and stainless-steel surfaces. Signs above the sinks in the bathrooms warn students and faculty that the water is for hand washing only.

Most other schools in the Baltimore area don't have the same lead infrastructure problems.

Water from a fountain? Not in Baltimore city schools

"In most communities around the country we have to acknowledge that this would not be acceptable," said Botel, now the executive director of MarylandCan, an education advocacy organization.

Nonetheless, Botel said, the decision to shut down the water fountains more than a decade ago was warranted and kept students safe, and the bottled water solution is an effective one. He and school officials agree that the inconvenience of drinking bottled water is just one of the many facilities problems that plague city schools.

Classrooms in dozens of schools, for instance, are either too hot or too cold because of the lack of air-conditioning and old heating systems that are not easily regulated. The air problems exacerbate asthma conditions and make it hard for students to concentrate on classwork — two issues that some teachers and parents find more concerning than having to use bottled water.

"I honestly prefer the bottled water because it is safer and clean," said Aisha Robinson, the mother of Alexandria, the third-grader at Cecil. "I am scared for my child to drink tap water."

Health and safety must come first, said Frank Patinella at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which has advocated for additional funding to repair and replace city schools.

"The school system has made the right choice in purchasing bottled water," he said. "Given the many dozens of urgent repairs needed each year — fixing leaking roofs, updating fire alarm systems and keeping the heat on — there is not enough funding to replace old lead pipes in over a hundred schools in the city."

Nearly a generation of children has grown up drinking water from paper cups at school, said Roxanne Forr, principal of Cecil Elementary.

"It is all the kids know," she said. "That is the only way they have ever gotten water."

Forr said the district's central office provides ample supplies of water and everyone has adjusted over the years. She believes the school's tap water is probably safe to drink. The school was renovated some years ago, and she knows of no test that showed unsafe lead levels when the water was regularly tested a decade ago.

Still, as a precaution, the school system will continue using bottled water for all but the most recently renovated schools.

Lead was first discovered in city schools in the early 1990s, when school officials ordered that water from fountains and sinks be tested. Those with unsafe lead levels were turned off and water coolers were installed. School officials weren't vigilant, however, and the water was turned back on at some schools.

Enter James Williams in 2003. A parent advocate whose son suffered lead paint poisoning a decade earlier, Williams began a one-man crusade to prove the water in schools was tainted by lead. He visited schools, had the water tested, and presented the results to the school board.

His findings alarmed board members, and soon the city Health Department was testing the water and shutting down school water supplies. At first, health officials ordered just the water sources with high lead levels shut down, but in 2007 city schools chief Andrés Alonso decided that annual water tests were too expensive and that it would be cheaper to turn off the drinking water in all schools and provide bottled water.

The test results at the time showed higher-than-acceptable lead levels from some water sources that had been deemed safe.

Although the issue of lead was lost on the third-graders at Cecil Elementary, Alexandria Francis and her classmates debated the pros and cons of water coolers versus fountains.

If they turned the water back on, Alexandria said, "that would save money."

"What if they had a recycling bin" for the paper cups? Kamurie Corprew asked.

"If we save money, we save trees," Alexandria said.

They decided they liked the idea of working fountains, and classmate Brielle Bowles pointed out that the savings could be spent on field trips and extra supplies for their classroom.