Schools would have to test their water for lead and follow a host of other new facilities and health rules under a proposal from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.
But some education leaders are concerned the rules exceed what schools are capable of implementing.
In a letter to DPHHS, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, state teacher's union president Eric Feaver, Montana Board of Public Education chairwoman Darlene Schottle and Small Schools Alliance executive director Dan Rask ask the department to extend the public comment period for the proposed rules.
"DPHHS’ proposed rule amendments will have major fiscal and administrative impacts on schools, including unfunded mandates," the letter says.
Lead in water has been a headlining environmental issue for schools, fueled in part by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. A 2018 report from an environmental group showed that most Billings schools have lead in their water, but that levels are below EPA thresholds. Billings conducted additional testing after the report.
Most Montana schools are not required to test water for lead, unless they effectively operate their own water systems.
The new DPHHS rules propose that schools test all "human consumption fixtures" at least once within a year of Oct. 1. If results are above the EPA threshold of 15 parts per million, schools must immediately stop using the fixture and remediate it within six months.
If results are between 5 and 15 ppm, then schools can continue using a fixture but must remediate it within six months. That would include 2018 results from Orchard Elementary, 6 ppm, and Rose Park Elementary and Will James Middle School at 5 ppm. Some tests of the City of Billings water system have registered results at those levels.
Both categories would require continued testing, as would test results below 5 ppm. But results below 5 ppm would need less frequent testing.
In its rationale, DPHHS cited health concerns about lead:
"Lead is a neurotoxin that can accumulate in the body over time with long lasting effects, particularly for children. ... High lead levels can cause multiple and irreversible health problems, which include learning disabilities, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), developmental or cognitive delays, growth stunting, seizures, coma, or, at high levels, death."
"Even though water delivered from the community's public water supply must meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for lead, a building may still have too much lead in the drinking water because of lead-containing plumbing materials and water use patterns," the proposal says. "The EPA strongly encourages schools to test water for lead. Testing water in schools is important because students spend a significant portion of their days at school, and likely consume water while there."
The new rules address far more than just lead. There are new indoor and outdoor air quality requirements, rules about chemical storage and lab safety, requirements about building inspections, playground inspections, breast feeding facilities, and pest control plans.
Arntzen spoke about the proposal at Wednesday's Board of Public Education meeting. She said the rules affect “all kinds of things that will take quite a bit of unwrapping to do.”
The Office of Public Instruction only learned about the proposed rules on June 21, she said. The first notification about potential rule changes was sent in August 2018, but Arntzen called the current proposal "a big deviation from what was originally sent.”
"We were not meaningfully involved in their drafting," said OPI director of communications and federal relations Dylan Klapmeier in a letter to school superintendents.
A public hearing is scheduled for Helena on Thursday, and the public comment period on the rules is scheduled to close July 19. The letter asked for an extension to September.
Schottle, the board chairwoman, said that “we definitely align with the request for extension.”
The inclusion of both Arntzen and Feaver, the union president, is particularly notable; the two often butt heads and the union strongly opposed Arntzen in the 2016 election.
“We are very concerned that there are schools that are not in session, so leaders are not aware of (these rules') impact,” Arntzen said. “These are rules that we really need to look at carefully.”
A DPHHS spokesman emailed a statement about the new rules Thursday afternoon:
“We all want Montana kids to grow up safe, healthy, and free from lead exposure in their classrooms. We will be pursuing federal grant funding to ensure healthy school environments and to substantially offset the cost of lead testing for schools.”