After water tested at one San Diego Unified campus revealed the presence of lead at twice the allowable levels, testing is under way at schools across the district.

So far, the results have been published from only one San Diego Unified site – Emerson-Bandini, in Mountain View, which shares a campus with San Diego Cooperative Charter School. Officials took 10 water samples from fountains and sinks on campus. Those tests revealed water from three different sources contained more than the allowable limit of lead. The water at one sink contained more than twice the allowable limit.


San Diego Unified isn’t the only local school district facing the concern.

Water samples taken last fall at La Mirada Elementary School in San Ysidro found alarming levels of lead coming from eight drinking fountains. And a test of a drinking fountain near the gym at San Marcos Middle School had “higher than acceptable” levels of lead, the district revealed in early March.

The news has spooked parents and at least one local lawmaker.

Not looking to cause panic: but, if your kids attend an older (pre-1986) school in San Diego, send them w/ bottled water until tested.

— Lorena (@LorenaSGonzalez) March 31, 2017

Here, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez advised parents to send their kids to school with water if those schools were built before 1986 – the year Congress passed a law to ban lead plumbing.

“We know that lead poisoning is irreversible,” Gonzalez later explained in a message to VOSD. “We don’t know the extent of the issue. So, as a parent, I would err on the side of caution until we know more.”

The city’s water is not the likely cause of the problem. The city samples its own water supply for lead. There is no indication that any recent samples show elevated levels of the metal. That’s one reason to believe lead entered the water from plumbing at the school.

Another reason is that only three of 10 fountains and sinks tested at Emerson-Bandini in early March had water with lead coming from them, meaning the problem seems to be localized within the school.

The likely cause of the lead pollution is fixtures or pipes inside the schools themselves. In San Ysidro, the district superintendent blamed aging facilities.

It’s true that the age of buildings can increase the risk of lead poisoning for children.

For instance, buildings built before 1978 were often painted with lead paint. And old buildings have plumbing or fixtures that can be made of lead or contain lead, which was only banned from plumbing in 1986 – though even now, very small amounts are still allowed.

That’s part of the reason why district officials said they would start testing water first at schools in southeastern San Diego – where many of the oldest buildings are located – and move toward schools in the south and west.

That said, the age of a facility, by itself, doesn’t correlate directly to risk of lead exposure. Some old buildings may have lead, others may not. Some may have lead that is corroding, others may not.

Still, if wanted to see which schools have higher risk factors for lead contamination, we’d compare schools by the age and type of their plumbing. Unfortunately, San Diego Unified doesn’t publish that specific information.

It does, however, keep tabs on the conditions of its buildings. A building’s condition is represented by its Facility Condition Index, or FCI, which are scores assigned to each school based on the condition of the buildings. The scores are supposed to help the district prioritize projects and monitor changing conditions over time. The higher the score, the worse shape a school is in.

Here’s how we described FCI last year:

“The FCI is calculated by dividing the cost of all repair, replacement and renovation needs across the district’s 15.2 million square feet of buildings by the current replacement value of all district facilities.

An FCI below 6 percent is considered good. Between 6 and 10 percent is fair, and above 10 percent is poor. An FCI above 30 percent is considered critical, or in need of urgent, immediate repair or replacement.”

Again, FCI score isn’t a perfect measure of risk factors for water contamination. The age and condition of a building’s plumbing are factored into a school’s FCI score, but so are other things, like the condition of the roof, intercom system and ventilation. But it does give an indication of how well schools have been maintained.

This is all fine context, you might be thinking. But where are the oldest schools? And which schools are in the worst condition?

Below, you’ll see two maps. The first is every school in the district, mapped by the year it was constructed, according to district bond documents. Each arrow represents one school site. You’ll see the building’s address, the year it was built and its current FCI score.

The FCI data comes with one caveat, though. Lee Dulgeroff, the district’s facilities and planning and construction officer, told us two years ago that the FCI list is supposed to be updated on an ongoing basis. But even though a district spokesperson confirmed the list we used here is the most recent available, the information hasn’t been updated since 2013.

That means some buildings could be in better condition than represented here if they’ve had major repairs or renovations in the past four years.

Problems viewing the map? Click here.

You’ll see on the map that while it’s true that southeastern San Diego has some of the district’s oldest schools, old schools aren’t unique to that part of town. That said, the vast majority of the district’s oldest schools are located south of Interstate 8 – a line that’s often used as shorthand for the division between affluent and poor San Diego neighborhoods.

The oldest building in the district is Wilson Middle, in City Heights, which was built in 1924. And you actually see the area around City Heights is the densest cluster of old schools – those built between 1924 and 1952.

But areas in the west – like Point Loma, Mission Beach and La Jolla – also have very old buildings. La Jolla High, for example, was built in 1940.

So does that mean students at La Jolla High are just as likely to get lead poisoning as students at Emerson-Bandini – which was built in 1939? Not necessarily.

While the two campuses were built at roughly the same time, there’s one major difference: La Jolla High is in much better shape than Emerson-Bandini, where the lead was discovered.

La Jolla High’s in the best shape of all schools across the district, with an FCI score of just over 1 percent. By contrast, Emerson-Bandini is listed at 27.6 – nearly critical condition.

On this second map, take a look at how schools compare when we look at them by facilities condition.

Problems viewing the map? Click here.

The schools shown in red are those with FCI scores above 30 percent, which the district considers critical, or in urgent need of repairs.

The school in the worst condition is De Portola Middle School, in Tierrasanta, which is listed at 43.8.

But the densest concentration of schools in poor shape is found in Southeastern San Diego. There, you see 10 of the 21 schools with FCI scores above 30. Oak Park Elementary, for example, is listed at 40.9 percent.

So, it turns out San Diego has good reason to start testing for lead in the southeastern corner of the district. But not because that’s where the oldest buildings are – more so, because that’s where old buildings are in the worst shape.

Ry Rivard contributed to this report.

The District Strikes Back

Earlier this week, data released by the California Department of Education showed that 91.2 percent of San Diego Unified’s class of 2016 graduated, setting an all-time high graduation rate. It also made good on a prediction school board members made a year ago, when they projected that 92 percent of the class of 2016 would go on to graduate.

For months, I’ve been detailing the ways in which San Diego Unified achieved its unprecedented graduation rate. On Tuesday, when the state released the newest data, I shed some light on all the factors that came together to make that rate possible.

Whether it was revamping the courses high schools offered, allowing certain students to test out of requirements or losing low-performing students to charter schools, the district moved students toward its graduation rate in a variety of ways.

Two days after we published that story, San Diego Unified issued a response. The district didn’t mention me or VOSD by name, but the points it raises are unique to our reporting.

While the district’s post appears to dispute the contents of our stories, the bulk of it was a rehash of the very same facts we’ve reported – but with a more positive spin.

We wrote, for example, that even though 91 percent of students graduated, only 59 percent of students did so meeting the entrance requirements to UC and CSU schools.

“A decade ago, only 40 percent of all San Diego Unified students achieved a C or better in their A-G classes, and today that number is 59 percent,” is how the district described it.

At one point, the district’s argument hinged on semantics. Thousands of students were not “excluded” from the district’s graduation rate, the post said. Rather, they were simply “not included” in the grad rate.

But the district saved its most pointed criticisms for our reporting on low-performing students who moved to charter schools.

Here’s how we described that:

“Data provided by six San Diego charter schools – all of which offer credit-recovery classes and an independent study program – shows that between 2014 and 2016, at least 931 students left San Diego Unified high schools after the start of their freshman year, en route to Diego Hills or a school with a similar model.

At least 584 of those students – or 63 percent – were more than a year behind at the time they transferred.

It’s a relationship that benefits both charter schools and San Diego Unified. The school districts get to shed their lowest-performing students – making it easier to maintain a graduation rate above 90 percent – and charter schools benefit from the influx of new students and the state funding that follows them.”

Here’s how the district responded to it:

In general, the notion that large numbers of charter school students are failing academically and would be a drag on the school district graduation rate if they were included in the rate appears to be unjustified. However, there is no reliable data on this question. The only reporting on the subject was incomplete – based on only 5 charter schools, and inconclusive – the data was unverified by the state or any outside agencies.

Given the relatively small number of students moving back and forth between charter schools and district-managed schools, it is unlikely these students would have a large impact on the overall graduation rate. For example, of those students who started at district-managed schools in 2012, a little over 900 moved to charter schools. In return, another 137 students moved to district-managed schools from charters. Taken together, that is less than 1%of all the students in San Diego city schools.

There are a few problems with this response. In October, VOSD requested district data that showed the number of students who left the class of 2016 for charter schools, and their academic standing at the time of departure. We’re still waiting.

We gave San Diego Unified multiple opportunities over multiple months to meet to discuss the graduation data. They declined. Before we published both stories, we sent the data that we had uncovered – without help from the district – to district officials, giving them an opportunity to comment before the story was published. In each case, they declined.

“We can’t comment on information you’ve received from other sources,” district spokesperson Shari Winet told me in February.

This is fine. News outlets can’t force public agencies to speak with them. But to decline to provide information or comment before a story is published, and then fault the resulting story for “incomplete data,” is disingenuous.  Our story made clear we were presenting data from five charter schools only – in no way did we suggest it was the “complete” story of students who left for charters. Again, we couldn’t make it complete because the district would not provide the data.

But the bigger problem with the district’s statement may be this line, which said the 900 students who we know moved to charter schools was too small a number to impact the graduation rate: “Taken together, that is less than 1 percent of all the students in San Diego city schools.”

That may be true. But we’re not talking about all the students who attend district schools, which number more than 100,000 students. We’re talking about a graduation cohort made up of roughly 7,000 students. And within that cohort, 900 students could have a notable impact on the graduation rate – especially when you consider that nearly 600 of them were not on track to graduate at the time they left, based on the data we received from individual charter schools.

It’s unclear why the district would approach communication through its own website as opposed to simply talking to reporters before a story is published. Perhaps it has to do with simply wanting the news to be happier.

sdschools tweet

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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