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Lead a problem for South Jersey schools, but lack of uniform reporting blurs picture

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It’s not what we do know about lead in school drinking water — that it is pervasive in districts throughout the state — that’s most concerning, it’s the lack of uniform data available to assess the problem, according to a recent report.

“We need better data collection and analysis to understand the extent of the issue,” the nonprofit New Jersey Future concluded in a preliminary analysis of reported test results released in August.

In July 2016, Gov. Chris Christie mandated all school districts perform testing on drinking-water sources for high levels of lead after the dangerous metal was found in Newark schools’ drinking water. The state allocated $10 million for districts and gave them a one-year deadline.

While the deadline has passed, and although many schools in South Jersey have fulfilled their obligations, there is no statewide data-collection system, which makes it hard to see the whole picture.

New Jersey Future criticized the lead testing process initiated by the state for its lack of transparency. The group solicited from the state all of the districts that reported high levels of lead in drinking water and found the response woefully incomplete.

“The type and level of data collected is insufficient to quantify how many schools in New Jersey have lead in drinking water and how many outlets require remediation to keep children safe,” the report states.

New Jersey Future made several recommendations, including that the state develop a standardized electronic collection system and better data-collection methods.

The Department of Education declined to comment on the New Jersey Future report.

However, the flaws in the system were apparent in a recent survey of 71 school districts in the Press of Atlantic City’s coverage area. Twenty-six districts reported no high levels of lead in drinking water, and 39 districts reported at least one water source that tested high. However, more than six districts did not have lead test results available on their district website.

In some instances, the missing information was simply an oversight. Margate, which had its school website updated earlier this year, did not have its lead testing results online until a reporter notified them of the oversight. They were uploaded within the hour.

In Maurice River Township, an outdated version of the test results was posted instead of the most recent information. That too was corrected within an hour of a reporter notifying the district. The same goes for Avalon and Stone Harbor, where Stone Harbor’s test results were missing, but Avalon’s were posted.

Of the 39 districts that did report at least one high lead test, 22 submitted notifications to the state Department of Education per new state requirements, according to an Open Public Records Act request. At least two districts contacted said they had notified the DOE, although their notifications were not included in the state’s OPRA response.

Another issue The Press survey turned up with the state’s lead-testing requirements is the lack of uniformity in the reporting process. Some districts posted the lab results and a letter simplifying the results for parents and guardians, noting how many high lead tests there were out of how many samples taken, as well as what the remediation process was. Other districts just posted the lab results. Some districts broke down the tests per school, while others posted districtwide results.

Brigantine was one of the 22 districts whose lead results were included in The Press’ OPRA request. Out of the 133 outlets tested, 28 came back with levels of lead over 15 parts per billion, the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level.” The district remediated all problem areas: Several of the outlets were disconnected, and the others were labeled “for hand washing only.”

Brian Pruitt, superintendent of Brigantine Public Schools, said that because it’s the first time the testing is being done, he expects the NJDOE to make improvements and adjustments to the process going forward. Pruitt praised the state for requiring the testing in the first place.

“I think it’s another notification to the parents and the staff and the children of all these school communities that the state’s taking a step to identify any area that might be a safety concern, and that you can make an actionable response to the data,” he said.

South Jersey School lead testing compliance and result

The table shows the school districts in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties that posted state-mandated lead in drinking water tests to their district websites, how many samples came back higher than the mandated action level, how many total samples were taken, and the schools that submitted high lead test results to the New Jersey Department of Education.

County name District name Posted test results on school website # of samples tested above 15 ppb for lead # of samples taken High lead test results received by the NJDOE
ATLANTIC Chartertech High School for the Performing Arts x 0 ? NA
ATLANTIC Egg Harbor Township School District x 0 276 NA
ATLANTIC Folsom Borough School District x 0 19 NA
ATLANTIC Northfield City School District x 0 ? NA
ATLANTIC Pleasantville Public School District x 0 72 NA
ATLANTIC Port Republic School District x 0 7 NA
ATLANTIC Ventnor City School District x 0 ? NA
CAPE MAY Avalon School District x 0 37 NA
CAPE MAY Cape May City School District x 0 24 NA
CAPE MAY Cape May County Special Services School District x 0 84 NA
CAPE MAY Cape May County Technical High School District x 0 72 NA
CAPE MAY Dennis Township School District x 0 52 NA
CAPE MAY Middle Township Public School District x 0 187 NA
CAPE MAY West Cape May Elementary School District x 0 12 NA
CUMBERLAND Bridgeton Public Charter School x 0 ? NA
CUMBERLAND Commercial Township School District x 0 42 NA
CUMBERLAND Compass Academy Charter School x 0 7 NA
CUMBERLAND Cumberland Regional School District x 0 117 NA
CUMBERLAND Downe Township School District x 0 64 NA
CUMBERLAND Lawrence Township School District x 0 64 NA
OCEAN Beach Haven School District x 0 5 NA
OCEAN Long Beach Island Consolidated School District x 0 27 NA
OCEAN Southern Regional School District x 0 ? NA
CUMBERLAND Maurice River Township School District x 0 35 NA
CUMBERLAND Fairfield Township School District x 0 51 NA
CAPE MAY Stone Harbor School District x 0 7 NA
ATLANTIC Absecon Public Schools District x 1 68 x
CAPE MAY Woodbine School District x 1 16
CUMBERLAND Deerfield Township School District x 1 49
CUMBERLAND Millville Public Charter School x 1 ?
CUMBERLAND Vineland Public Charter School x 1 ?
ATLANTIC Buena Regional School District x 2 99
ATLANTIC Egg Harbor City School District x 2 27 x
ATLANTIC Weymouth Township School District x 2 ?
CAPE MAY North Wildwood School District x 2 28 x
CAPE MAY Wildwood City School District x 2 51 x
OCEAN Eagleswood Township School District x 2 41 x
ATLANTIC Atlantic City School District x 3 255
ATLANTIC Margate City School District x 3 90
CAPE MAY Lower Cape May Regional School District x 3 67 x
OCEAN Little Egg Harbor Township School District x 3 ?
ATLANTIC Hammonton School District x 4 24
ATLANTIC Estell Manor City School District x 5 47
ATLANTIC Linwood City School District x 5 54 x
OCEAN Ocean County Vocational Technical x 5 81 x
ATLANTIC Atlantic County Vocational School District x 6 73 x
CAPE MAY Wildwood Crest Borough School District x 6 68 x
CUMBERLAND Hopewell Township School District x 6 45 x
OCEAN Barnegat Township School District x 6 185
ATLANTIC Hamilton Township School District x 7 ? x
CUMBERLAND Vineland Public School District x 7 273
OCEAN Stafford Township School District x 8 178 x
ATLANTIC Mainland Regional High School District x 9 58
CAPE MAY Ocean City School District x 10 150 x
ATLANTIC Somers Point School District x 13 145
CUMBERLAND Upper Deerfield Township School District x 13 122 x
ATLANTIC Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District x 18 261 x
CAPE MAY Lower Township Elementary School District x 21 160 x
CAPE MAY Upper Township School District x 21 114 x
ATLANTIC Mullica Township School District x 23 95
ATLANTIC Atlantic County Special Services School District x 27 193 x
ATLANTIC Galloway Township Public Schools x 27 439 x
ATLANTIC Brigantine Public School District x 28 133 x
ATLANTIC Atlantic Community Charter School ? ?
ATLANTIC International Academy of Atlantic City Charter School ? ?
CUMBERLAND Cumberland County Vo-Tech ? ?
CUMBERLAND Greenwich-Stow Creek School District ? ?
OCEAN Pinelands Regional School District ? ?
OCEAN Tuckerton Borough School District ? ?
CUMBERLAND Bridgeton City School District x Some ? x
CUMBERLAND Millville School District x Some 959

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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