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For years, San Diego Unified has known plumbing was aging at 78-year-old Emerson-Bandini Elementary School in Mountain View. In fact, three times in the past 13 years, Emerson’s plumbing needs were held up to voters as one of the reasons they should approve tax hikes to fund school repairs.
Voters approved all three measures, pumping billions of dollars into the district. But the plumbing repairs have yet to happen.
In the meantime, school officials found alarming levels of toxic chemicals in the water at Emerson. One was vinyl chloride, a carcinogen. The other was lead, which can damage children’s brains.
Both chemicals likely leached into the water because of aging plumbing or fixtures.
During campaign season, school districts and interest groups pull out dire sob stories to persuade voters to approve tax hikes for school construction. Usually, these campaigns make it seem as if children will sit in cramped, decaying schoolhouses unless voters pony up.
In 2004, a third-party group told voters that state Proposition 55 money could “repair plumbing, drainage, sewers” at Emerson.
In 2008, San Diego Unified told voters local Proposition S money would “repair/replace deteriorating plumbing and sewer systems” at the school.
In 2012, San Diego Unified told voters Proposition Z money would go there to “upgrade old plumbing and sewer systems.”
Since then, San Diego Unified has spent about $1.7 million on different projects at Emerson.
None of that money targeted the sort of critical infrastructure needs that ensure children aren’t drinking polluted water.
The district is spending $1.3 million on a new wireless network for the school and it spent over $400,000 on a new synthetic turf field. San Diego Unified also talked about spending $327,000 on new rooftop solar panels.
In an eerily prescient statement, former San Diego Unified Trustee Scott Barnett told us in 2015 that when it comes to prioritizing projects funded by school bond money, “it’s about what the parents want and what the politicians want. Look, you can’t do a ribbon-cutting on new plumbing, right? But you can do it on a new stadium.”
You can also have a groundbreaking ceremony for a new field, as the district did at Emerson in 2014.
Even after district officials persuaded voters to approve multibillion-dollar school construction bonds, San Diego Unified has seen the condition of its schoolhouses worsen.
Richard Barrera, a member of the San Diego Unified Board of Education who attended the groundbreaking, said students at Emerson wanted that new field. The old one, made of decomposed granite, was falling apart. Kids were getting scratched up and dust in their noses. The problems were so acute, Barrera recalled, that kids wouldn’t play there anymore.
But when student government representatives asked for the field, Barerra said he challenged them to show that support for a new field was widespread.
“They came back to me and delivered a petition that probably 90 percent of the kids in all the different classes signed,” he said.
So, the district bought the school a new field.
A spokesman for San Diego Unified said the field did not “in any way deter or delay” plumbing upgrades.
The district is working on that “whole site modernization” for Emerson but construction isn’t scheduled to begin until fall 2018.
“While the district was not aware of any water contamination issues at Emerson-Bandini during the Props. S and Z ballot initiatives, it planned to replace aging buildings at the Emerson campus due to the age of the facilities,” district spokesman Samer Naji said in an email.
Emerson-Bandini has a hyphen in its name because it is a school divided. The south campus, known as the Emerson campus, is a block away from the north campus, known as the Bandini campus. In between the two campuses is a shopping center.
The school is divided in another way: San Diego Unified students and students from the San Diego Cooperative Charter School share both campuses.
About a decade ago, San Diego Unified talked about tearing down one of the campuses to make way for a high school, Barrera said.
Repairing things inside of a school set to be torn down and rebuilt doesn’t make sense, so plumbing work there was not a top priority.
“Emerson-Bandini was not front-loaded on the schedule because of the possibility that it would be converted into a small high school,” Barrera said, referring to the list of bond-funded projects that got money first.
But in the meantime, problems there became startling clear on Jan. 26.
Tom Pellegrino, executive director of San Diego Cooperative, was there that day, in the charter school part of the south campus. He said the caretaker of the school therapy dog, Star, poured water into a cup. The water smelled weird. Then the caretaker poured the water into a dog bowl. Star wouldn’t drink it.
Pellegrino said he and the charter school’s principal, Anthony Villasenor, contacted San Diego Unified officials.
One round of tests found vinyl chloride in the water and another round of tests found lead.
The city’s water supply is clean and safe, so the pollution was happening at the school. An old school like Emerson might have a combination of lead plumbing, which was outlawed starting in 1986, and newer plastic plumbing.
The plumbing system had several problems.
First, plastic pipe at the school was aging, according to the district. That plastic pipe is the source of the vinyl chloride.
Second, there was too much of the plastic pipe between the tap in the portable classroom and the city’s water system, Pellegrino said. That meant clean city water could sit in the aging plastic pipe and absorb plastic chemicals before it reached students and teachers.
Since then, school officials have hooked the portables at the south campus into a city water main that is closer to the classrooms, so the water won’t have as much chance to sit.
They have also begun replacing pipes, pipe joints and fixtures, which can all be sources of water contamination.
Pellegrino said tests no longer show vinyl chloride in the water, which means issues with the plastic pipe have been fixed. The district has also told him that its latest tests show no more water faucets or fountains have unsafe levels of lead at Emerson.
He also does not yet know if the water at the Bandini north campus is safe. That water was recently tested but results were not yet available.
Pellegrino said several worried parents have rushed to get their children’s blood tested for lead poisoning. He said no students or their parents have reported unhealthy lead levels.
Now, the charter school plans to pay for any student to get blood tests, if the students’ insurance doesn’t cover it or their parents can’t otherwise afford the tests. The charter school has arranged for a mobile blood lab to show up to do tests in coming days.
“We’re just trying to make sure from a parent perspective that we notify parents of everything we know and help them on the path to make sure that their children are completely healthy and unaffected by this,” Pellegrino said.
Mario Koran and Ashly McGlone contributed to this story.