With the budget to renovate the former Rossland Secondary School building possibly costing more than was budgeted for, the existing problem of poor water quality in the school is being dropped like a lead weight.
The issue of lead in the water won’t be addressed before students go back to school at RSS in the fall but it should be part of the renovation cost, says one Rossland parent and advocate for safe drinking water at the school.
Deb Dovgala said she is outraged the problem of unsafe drinking water has not been taken care of, five years after it first came to light.
“Why would you do all those renovations, and not take care of the water problem?” she said. “It seems pretty basic.”
A renovation project to convert the high school to a kindergarten to Grade 9 facility has been estimated at $550,000 but only includes very minimal changes to the building in order to have the required number of classrooms initially, according to a SD20 missive earlier this year.
Resolving issues with the drinking water at RSS are an estimated one time cost of $127,000.
Dovgala wondered if there was something in the renovation budget the district could give up if it was that tight for money.
School District 20’s finance and facility committee chair Mark Wilson said the cost of the renovation is out for tender, and no figure on the renovation cost will be released until the bids were closed.
He admitted the figure would be hundreds of thousands of dollars because the school board is “trying to do it the right way.” The budgeted figure could not be released, but it is “substantial,” Wilson said, and it could be more than expected.
“Any time you are opening up an old building or a house, sometimes you run into unexpected things,” he said. “And we want to get this done and we want it done properly.”
He said the board was hoping it would be able to take care of the re-piping of the school with this renovation, but the SD20 budget for 2013/14 doesn’t have $127,000 for such a project rolled into it.
“We are well aware of (the problem) and it will be fixed as soon as we can come up with some money,” Wilson said.
Right now water fountains are turned off, like they have been for over five years, and the school district will continue to supply bottled water until the problem can be dealt with. Wilson said money will be set aside for the repair, but could not say when that would happen.
“It’s got to be addressed and it’s got to be fixed, but it could be a very serious problem. That $127,000 from the Syntac report is just for the cold water line going into the school,” he said. “It could possibly be more than that we would have to do down the road.”
Capital improvements are typically funded through a Ministry of Education capital grant (a separate allocation from the Ministry of approximately $900,000 per year) and not the operating budget.
A consultant hired by the district to study the situation and provide cost estimates noted providing bottled water was cheaper than re-piping the entire school—at a cost of $64,000 for Maclean Elementary and $127,000 for Rossland Secondary—but could still be a long-term solution to the problem.
In the commissioned report, elevated lead levels, above those permitted by Health Canada guidelines, were found in all 10 water samples analyzed at the two schools, as well as both solder samples.
Some piping in RSS was noted to be galvanized. “Though not analyzed, the zinc coating also most likely contains lead,” the consultant report read.
Dovgala realized it was a money issue, but she trusted the school board would do the right thing after the facilities review was over and the dust had settled on the question of the Rossland schools.
And when the board again deferred a decision to re-pipe in favour of a renovation again she was shocked.
“It’s time the school district looked after the Rossland kids like they were part of the district and not like a pain in the ass, and that’s what we have felt like every step of the way,” she said. “It just makes me wonder … why are you not taking care of our children, what did we do?”
After being stonewalled by the school district on two occasions, Dovgala contacted Interior Health as well as the Ministry of Education about the problem. The province said the matter was in the hands of the local board.
“The Kootenay-Columbia board has a long-term facilities plan for the district and I understand the board is working to remedy the water pipe issues at Rossland Secondary,” said Heather Hill, director, Capital Management Branch, BC Ministry of Education.
In May of 2009 SD20 had the water tested at all of its schools. It was found that there was lead leaching into the water at RSS, MacLean Elementary School and one other school in Castlegar.
Shortly after the problem was found, SD20 began supplying bottled water to MacLean and Rossland and there were signs put up not to run the water.
Because the amount of lead in the water was not over the “hand washing, exposure limit” Kootenay Boundary Interior Health gave SD20 the okay to continue with providing bottled water until they decided the fate of Rossland Secondary School.
Dovgala hoped to incite some interest from other people in the community by publicly raising the problem, and help pressure the school board to remedy the problem sooner than later.
“It would be nice if kids could drink the water out of the fountain and they should be able to, in all our schools. We aren’t a third world country and it seems like we should be able to do that,” she said.
Letter from Deb Dovgala to the province
Dear Mr. Don McRae, B.C. Minister of Education:
I am writing because of a concern I have with Kootenay Columbia School District 20’s decision to spend $771,000 to renovate a school and not to fix the problem of the lead contaminated drinking water.
In May of 2009 SD20 discovered that there was an issue with the water quality of the schools in Rossland and that the water was contaminated with lead above what the ministry of health deams as safe drinking water.
The district, after numerous consultations with the City of Rossland and Interior Health, made the decision to provide bottled water to the schools in Rossland in lieu of fixing the problem with the pipes (which was determined to be the source of the problem).
At the time, and for the 15 years prior, SD20 had been considering closing Rossland Secondary School because of financial constraints and other political pressures. Interior Health empathized with the financial burden of fixing the problem when the fate of the school was unknown and felt that providing bottled water was a safe and effective way to deal with the problem on a temporary basis until the fate of the school was known.
In January, 2013 SD20 decided to close Rossland’s MacLean Elementary School and reconfigure Rossland Secondary as a K-9 school. They estimated the renovation to be approximately $550,000, including the $146,000 to fix the water pipe problem.
Now, four months later, the budget for the renovation has skyrocketed to $771,000, not including the additional cost of not selling MacLean Elementary (for which they have a buyer) and transportation costs that they severely underestimated, as well as deciding to postpone fixing the water problem until next year or perhaps the year after … or perhaps the year after that.
The new renovation calls for sinks in every primary classroom, yet the children can’t drink the water. Being that our district’s head office is in the industrial town of Trail where Teck is the primary industry, they are also aware that there is a certain amount of absorption of lead by the skin which puts people who are exposed to low levels of lead at an increased risk of accumulating lead in the blood stream.
Yet they have chosen not to deal with the lead problem as was promised to the community and to Interior Health.
I know that Ministry of Education does not like to interfere with board decisions. However, this decision is clearly irresponsible and puts children at unnecessary risk. The district has recently spent approximate $30,000 on a renovation to store documents from the historical society at the high school in Trail and an additional $4,000 to put toward the building of a community garden, yet they have made Rossland kids wash their hands in contaminated water without any true commitment to remedy the problem.
I would like you to step in and influence SD20 to commit to having SD20 fix the contaminated water problem by September 2013.
Sincerely, Deb Dovgala
Response from the province
To Deb Dovgala:
Your email sent to the Office of the Minister of Education has been forwarded to me for response.
As you know, under the School Act, boards of education have the authority to decide how best to address the needs of students within their local communities.
Each board is a separate, legal entity that is responsible for budgetary decisions, including the management and operation of its school facilities. The board of education is also responsible for the health and safety of students while on school property.
The Kootenay-Columbia board has a long-term facilities plan for the district and I understand the board is working to remedy the water pipe issues at Rossland Secondary.
In this regard, I encourage you to work with your local trustees and school district staff to ensure they are aware of your concerns about the quality of drinking water at the school.
Heather Hill, director,
Capital Management Branch, BC Ministry of Education