DECATUR – Anna Waters Head Start would be in line for a double whammy under a new law that would require older Illinois elementary schools and day care centers to test their drinking water for lead and notify parents of the results.
The Effie Oliver center, built in 1942, would have to be tested the tune of $500 to $1,000. Then the same would likely have to happen at the New Horizon center, completed in 1994.
“We certainly want to provide a safe environment,” said Gail Evans, executive director of Decatur-Macon County Opportunities Corp., the community action agency that runs the preschool program. “It could impact our delivery of the service, but you have to try to work it out with the resources you have available.”
One saving grace for the program, designed to prepare 378 disadvantaged children for kindergarten, is that the Decatur Housing Authority owns the Effie Oliver Child and Family Center at 1075 N. Morgan St. and would have to foot that part of the bill.
Area school superintendents, while acknowledging that validating the safety of their drinking water could only be a good thing, say leaving schools to find a way to pay the cost leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Pana's David Lett said if the state would just pay schools the funding they are owed – in his district's case, about $350,000 – such concerns would be diluted greatly.
“No one is excited about unfunded mandates, but the reality is if we could just kind of get our house in order in Illinois and get a budget passed and start paying the existing bills, I'd be ecstatic,” he said.
Senate Bill 550, which passed 108-1 in the House Monday, also has Gov. Bruce Rauner's support, according to a spokesperson in his office.
The proposal follows the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Mich., which shed light on the dangers of lead contamination. Children are most at risk to the effects of elevated lead levels, which can cause developmental delays.
"Testing drinking water in all Illinois schools and day cares is an inexpensive way to immediately identify and stop lead exposure in young children that would otherwise cost families, schools and government much more," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a statement.
Since last year, her office has called for mandated lead testing in schools with the Illinois Environmental Council, which says there is a lack of information available to parents about water supplies.
One of the sticking points was cost: Earlier versions called for water suppliers to pick up the tab and they objected.
Unveiled as lawmakers gathered for the final days of the current legislative session, the proposal applies to all public and private schools with students up to grade 5 and facilities built before 2000.
Schools built before 1987 would have to test by the end of the year. Those constructed between 1987 and 2000 would have until the end of 2018. Lead pipes were banned nationwide in 1986.
Rules for testing at day cares will not be in place until Jan. 1, 2018.
There are about 2,500 elementary schools in Illinois, and according to the IEC, many have already been tested for lead.
This includes more than 300 schools in Chicago that were tested last year and all Decatur public schools tested in the early 1990s, including 17 buildings serving younger students.
Jim Gortner, director of buildings and grounds, said his predecessor Mike Sotiroff hired the work done and that water sources identified as having unacceptable levels of lead were repaired in a “timely” fashion.
“We are confident that the district's drinking water is safe and exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency's minimum requirements,” Gortner said.
Illinois also has about 11,000 licensed day care centers and homes that would be affected.
"This is going to be more of a burden for some than others," said Zach Messersmith with the Illinois Association of School Boards. He gave possible examples of post-testing changes, such as having to replace pipes or drinking fountains; the bill does not mandate those fixes.
DeAnn Heck, superintendent of Central A&M covering Assumption and Moweaqua, said she is waiting for the state to make good on $740,000 currently owed her school district.
She predicted superintendents will swap notes on the best firms charging reasonable prices to do the new lead testing, which she supports.
Heck also has some other ideas on how the state might allow schools to pay for the testing.
“They could let us use money from life-safety funds,” she said. “Normally, life-safety pays for things that pertain to the safety of the children within buildings, so we'll see.”
Maura Possley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said the proposal does indeed allow school districts to use life-safety funds.
Kristen Kendrick-Weikle, superintendent at Warrensburg-Latham, said her district's elementary building was built in 1970 and would have to test for lead this year.
“The idea is an admirable one,” she said. “The part that is most concerning to me is this is another unfunded mandate that is being placed upon schools. Many of the ideas behind mandates have good intentions, but they can quickly add up, diverting money away from supplies, materials and staff.”
Shauna Ejeh, executive director of Baby TALK, said something similar about her agency's Early Head Start program serving children birth to 3 in a building constructed in 1972.
“We need to put children's safety first, but we also need to manage the financial burden,” Ejeh said. “Many of us are already out here providing services without payment.”
Jim Alpi, executive director of the Decatur Housing Authority, said the pipes in the Effie Oliver center, a former Longview Place apartment building converted to a preschool in the early 1970s, are copper, joined with a bit of solder that may or may not contain lead.
“We absolutely will have the water tested, but I am confident we won't find a public health problem there,” he said.