School District Woes Likened to ‘Environmental Racism’ in Flint, Mich.

Students and staff in the East Ramapo Central School District, about 30 miles north of New York City, cannot drink the tap water in any of the public school buildings, according to a new state-mandated survey, and the chronic state of disrepair has prompted calls for a takeover of the school system.

The East Ramapo public schools serve more than 9,200 K-12 students, and all 13 school buildings received a failing rating in a survey of building conditions completed by a New York-based architecture, engineering and construction management firm. The district’s school administration building also received a failing rating, and other buildings in the district received unsatisfactory ratings.

It would cost more than $230 million to make all the necessary repairs, the firm, CSArch, estimated.

Lead was detected in the water in many of the schools in 2016, and some taps and water fountains were shut off at the time. Tap water is available now for hand-washing and cleaning, but students and staff must rely on bottled water and water from filling stations for drinking, according to a spokesperson for the district.

The situation is “reminiscent of the environmental racism seen in Flint, Michigan,” the New York Civil Liberties Union, along with 24 other organizations, wrote in a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul and other officials demanding that the state take over the school district.

They noted that the schools are attended primarily by Black and Latino students.

“Much like Flint, the lead in the water at East Ramapo public schools was discovered seven years ago, yet it remains unaddressed,” the letter reads.

Dr. Clarence G. Ellis, the superintendent, said the survey showed the need for “significant upgrades.”

“We are reviewing different financial options to make the necessary improvements quickly, especially ones that directly impact the health and safety of our students and staff,” he said in a written statement.

The concern in East Ramapo, located in Rockland County, comes at a time of heightened scrutiny about lead in water. More than 900,000 households in New York City might be receiving water from a lead service line, according to a recent report by the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning.

Exposure to lead, which is a neurotoxin, can damage the brain and nervous system, particularly in babies and small children. Lead poisoning can cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities and a decline in measured intelligence levels.

Every school district in New York was required to complete a building survey between 2020 through 2024, and then again every five years. East Ramapo’s survey was scheduled for 2022. The New York Times obtained a summary of the firm’s survey dated June 20, 2023.

The survey findings were first reported by The Journal News.

“It is unthinkable for New York to tolerate such deplorable, dangerous conditions for the students in East Ramapo schools,” Johanna Miller, the director of the Education Policy Center at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

Lead was found in at least nine of the district’s buildings in 2016, leading officials to shut off a number of water sources, including water fountains and various faucets used for drinking and cooking. Purified water dispensaries were installed, and signs in English, Spanish, Creole and Yiddish urged students and staff not to drink the water.

J.P. O’Hare, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said in an email that the department was working with state-appointed monitors to “ensure progress continues and the educational rights of every East Ramapo student are met,” adding that there has been “increased oversight and scrutiny” of the district over the last several years.

The school district is spending nearly $91 million of federal Covid-19 response money on building improvements, which is more than any other district in the state, Mr. O’Hare said, adding that “there still is much work to do.”

The district’s public schools have been in disrepair for years. In 2014, a monitor appointed by the state said the board, which has long been dominated by Orthodox Jews, had shown favoritism to private schools in the district, which are attended primarily by Orthodox Jewish students.

There were other issues beyond those pertaining to the contaminated water highlighted in the report: Five East Ramapo schools had kitchen ventilation hoods that were unsatisfactory. There was evidence of vermin at four schools, and the majority of schools had ventilation systems and HVAC control systems that were unsatisfactory.

One of the schools in the district, Spring Valley High School, closed in 2021 after mold was detected in classrooms, and it appeared that any remediation could lead to asbestos exposure. Parents and children have complained about the quality of the food prepared at the schools, expressing concerns about food that didn’t taste good and meals that were making children ill.

There is an association between school building conditions and student absenteeism in New York, according to a report from the National Library of Medicine, which evaluated data for upstate New York public schools serving students from kindergarten to grade 12.

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