Thursday, April 24, 2003

City schools dropped lead inspections

Budget cuts cited for district's failure to follow up

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A maintenance program that was designed to reduce the risk of lead contamination in Cincinnati Public Schools was abandoned in the early 1990s because of budget cuts.

The program was launched in 1984 when the school system's maintenance staff inspected and repaired dozens of schools in which lead paint had been used on walls and windows.

These schools will be inspected for possible lead contamination:
Old Sands
Bond Hill Academy
Neighborhood School
Old Clifton
College Hill
Hyde Park School
Kirby Road School
Pleasant Ridge
Winton Place
In most cases, a coat of lead-free paint was used to cover the older paint.

But school officials say crucial follow-up work - such as checking to make sure the lead paint remained safely covered - was not done because the district could not afford it.

"We have not had the resources to do that," said Mike Burson, the school district's director of facilities.

Nearly 20 years after the first repairs were done, many of those same Cincinnati schools are again under scrutiny for possible lead contamination.

Twenty-three schools will be inspected and Heberle Elementary will be closed for at least six weeks because lead contamination was found near old wooden windows at the West End school.

A student at Heberle was found to have elevated blood-lead levels, but health officials cannot say for certain the contamination occurred at the school.

School officials say the decision to inspect older schools with the same kind of painted wooden windows is a precaution.

They say they are not aware of specific problems at the other 23 schools.

"We are committed to doing what is right and what is needed to protect the safety of our students," said school spokeswoman Janet Walsh. "We won't know what action is warranted until the experts take a look at the buildings."

For years, however, school officials have known that lead paint had been used in many of the district's 80 schools, just as it had been used for years in older homes and businesses across the country.

Concerns about the paint prompted the districtwide effort in the mid-1980s to ensure that lead paint was either removed or, in most cases, safely covered with lead-free paint.

By 1986, the inspections were complete and lead abatement had been done in at least 26 of the city's public schools.

"Health and safety was always a concern," said Tom Flaherty, who was the district's associate director of safety and security at the time of the lead abatement program.

Flaherty said it was important to continue to monitor the affected schools and repaint whenever necessary. Otherwise, the new paint could begin to chip away, once again exposing the original lead paint.

"Whether there was a follow-up after I left, I can't tell you," said Flaherty, who retired in 1992. "But it should have been looked at."

Burson said the maintenance staff has done some painting in the past decade, but no one has gone back to check on the lead abatement work done in the mid-1980s.

Burson said severe budget cuts and a reduction in the maintenance staff has made it impossible to routinely review the work done nearly 20 years ago. Instead, he said, the staff has been busy keeping up with more pressing safety issues, such as installing new fire alarms, updating emergency lighting systems and repairing crumbling roofs and boilers.

"We've done a lot," Burson said. "There continues to be a focus on safety."

But as maintenance budgets have been consistently cut over the years, routine upkeep and painting has not been a priority. At some schools, including those now under scrutiny for lead contamination, parents have taken it upon themselves to paint their children's schools.

"They've let the windows and paint go to pot," said Kirsten McKillop, a Hyde Park resident whose son attends Kilgour Elementary. "We care about our kids and we care about our schools, so we take care of it."

She said the problem illustrates why the school district needs voters to approve the May 6 bond issue that would provide $480 million to repair or replace many city schools.


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