- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Portland Public Schools’ senior manager for environmental health and safety, Andy Fridley, resisted testing school water quality and spread false information about the safety of drinking water in schools, email records show.

Fridley was the point person charged with protecting students and employees in Oregon’s largest school district from environmental hazards for two years. Superintendent Carole Smith put him on paid leave June 2 due to his role in the district’s much-criticized response to high lead levels at two schools.

Fridley’s written statements to parents, colleagues and bosses, however, portray him as misinformed about water quality regulations and equipment as well as resistant to efforts to measure and improve water quality. Emails show he mocked a parent who expressed concern about lead levels one or two milligrams below the federal action level as “zero lead in water lady.”

The Oregonian/OregonLive was the first media outlet to request emails sent and received by Fridley and other senior Portland officials regarding lead in water, on May 27. The school district released roughly 900 pages of emails Wednesday.

Among Fridley’s incorrect assertions:

. There was “no plan or need” to retest water fountains or sinks in at least one school that showed acceptable lead levels 15 years ago. If contaminants such as lead and copper “are not present in the initial testing,” he wrote to a concerned parent at Creston Elementary in February, “there is no reason to believe they will be in the future.” Creston was one of two schools found to have elevated levels of lead in water fixtures this year.

. No test results in the past few years indicated high lead levels in Portland schools. “Where we have spot tested at other schools,” he told the Creston parent, “we have found lead levels at or below” results from systemwide testing in 2001. In fact, 157 drinking fountains and sinks in 51 schools and Head Start centers have recorded lead levels above the federal action level since 2009.

. The water filters the district deploys are effective against lead. The district in fact uses filters proven to improve the look and smell of water, not to reduce lead below the federal action level. As recently as May 24, the day before parents were notified as of high lead levels at Rose City Park School and Creston, Fridley insisted to the district’s spokeswoman and to his boss that the filters are “effective at reducing or eliminating lead to meet (Environmental Protection Agency) Standards.”

It is unclear what qualified Fridley for the job. The district said it could not immediately respond to requests for his résumé or professional certifications. Fridley’s LinkedIn profile indicates he earned a degree in geology in 1985 and was originally hired by the school district into a lower-ranking environmental safety job in 2006.

Fridley could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

On March 31, Portland Public Schools received results of tests at the two schools showing lead levels as high as twice the federal action level. Fridley did not order the water at those fixtures shut off and didn’t request that alternate sources of clean drinking water be brought in.

The emails suggest that Fridley’s direct supervisor, senior director of facilities and assets management David Hobbs, did not share Fridley’s view that all drinking water in Portland schools is safe.

In an email about priorities for the district’s next school bond, intended to be put before voters in the fall, Hobbs called for spending $7 million on “re-piping 15 priority schools to address lead pipes and water contamination,” which he called “a major safety hazard for drinking water.”

Hobbs is the highest-ranking Portland Public Schools official shown by the email records to have been told of the high lead levels found at Rose City Park almost as soon as the results came in. He apparently did not share that information up the chain of command

More than four weeks later, Hobbs’ boss, Chief Operating Officer Tony Magliano, asked Fridley about the Rose City Park water tests: “Did we get the results back?”

None of the emails appears to indicate that Smith knew of the positive tests for lead before May 25, the day she has said she found out about them and “immediately” began seeking more information and planning a response.

Smith’s chief of staff, Amanda Whalen, learned in mid-March that district officials planned to test for lead in the water at Rose City Park in response to a parent’s concern and that results were expected by early April. She forwarded that email, without comment, to Smith.

Fridley chose not to share the troubling test results with Rose City Park teachers and parents for many weeks, despite being urged to do so. The one Rose City Park parent who knew those results, because she was the one who insisted the water be tested, wrote to the administrators overseeing the school on April 11. She said she felt compelled to tell others about the lead but thought it would be better if school district officials delivered that message.

“Ethically, I feel like I need to let parents know what I know. PR-wise, it would sure look better if the information were first disseminated by you (or) PPS,” she wrote. “Even if the district hasn’t issued a statement, I encourage you to at least post the water test results today.”

One of the administrators forwarded that email to Fridley. Parents were not notified for more than six weeks.

More than a month after the parent sent her email, Sarah Jones, a Beverly Cleary assistant principal working at Rose City Park, emailed Fridley and Hobbs, asking for information to share with families.

“Parents and staff are extremely concerned,” Jones wrote, about testing results that they had heard about but not seen.

On May 24, Jones followed up with Fridley, writing “We need practical advice about what is safe for kids that we can implement. Where should they be drinking water from and where should they not be drinking from? Do the filters on the drinking fountains filter out lead? I want to make sure that we are keeping kids safe, and that when parents ask, we have good answers.”

That night, Fridley told spokeswoman Christine Miles that installed filters should alleviate concerns. “The filters are effective at reducing or eliminating lead to meet EPA standards,” he wrote.

Emails also show that board members were not informed until the evening of May 25, three hours after parents at the two schools got a mass notice - timing that infuriated board members.

“I was surprised yesterday that the board was notified three hours after the email was sent to parents, rather than given advance warning, especially given that this problem was identified two months ago,” board member Mike Rosen wrote to Smith and others the next day.

Rosen told Magliano, who oversees all facilities and maintenance work, “Honestly… I am shocked, given the recent local and national events surrounding (lead) contamination, how poorly this has been managed.”

Smith also put Magliano on paid leave.

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Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com

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