New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has serious concerns about the Department of Education’s efforts to keep city schools free of peeling lead paint. In a letter sent today to Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, Stringer demanded that the DOE provide documentation proving whether it has followed rules that require it to conduct annual inspections for peeling lead paint in past years

An investigation by WNYC conducted earlier this year found high levels of lead-paint contamination in four public elementary schools, prompting the city to conduct a fresh round of inspections over the summer in what it called “an abundance of caution.” Despite assurances from the department at the time that its classrooms were safe, over 1,800 3-K through first grade classrooms were found to have active lead-paint hazards in need of remediation — a failure rate of over one in five classrooms.

Those numbers, the letter states, raise questions about how effective DOE’s inspections have been in the past, which is why Stringer has asked the Carranza to provide records of all lead-paint inspections and test results conducted over the past five years.

“DOE’s supposed to conduct these surveys annually so the records should be easy to find,” Stringer said in a phone interview. “If they’re not, that will speak volumes about how seriously they take their obligations.”

Lead is a neurotoxin that, even at relatively low levels, can cause reduced IQ, hyperactivity and other behavioral problems. At higher levels, it can lead to more extreme forms of brain damage.

“Lead poisoning is among the most serious things that can happen to a child and we have to have zero tolerance,” said Stringer.

The majority of the city’s elementary schools were built before 1960, the year New York City banned the use of lead paint, and DOE’s own documentation shows that lead paint continued to be used in city schools until around 1980.

The city’s health code requires DOE to conduct visual inspections for peeling lead paint in all classrooms serving children under six years of age — a code that’s currently being rewritten to require DOE and other school operators to, among other things, make the results of those all future inspections available to parents.

DOE has also revamped its protocols to include three inspections each year, instead of just one. It’s also added cafeterias and school libraries to the roster of rooms it inspects after City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and other council members urged the Chancellor to test school common areas for lead paint.

“The Council’s concerns about DOE’s previous monitoring of lead paint in schools is part of what has driven our work,” Johnson said in an emailed statement to WNYC. “DOE’s approach to this issue in the past was inadequate.”

DOE said it completed inspections of cafeterias and libraries at the end of October and that remediation will be complete by the end of the school year, although it’s yet to make the results of those inspections public. WNYC’s investigation found lead-dust levels over 300 times the city’s safety standard on the floor in one school library in Brooklyn used by pre-K and kindergarten students.

It’s also unclear whether DOE was consistently following all health code requirements in previous years. The head of school facilities, John Shea, has said publicly that the round of classroom inspections conducted over the summer was a significant undertaking for both DOE and the School Construction Authority. “It’s been a lot of work,” Shea told a Community Education Council meeting in September, while also maintaining that the department had always been doing it.

“Our protocols have always met or exceeded what was required by law,” Shea told the audience. “We were always doing it. We made it better. I think if the [WNYC] story had an effect on making that better, that's great. But I don't think that it changed significantly from what we were doing before.”

But so far, DOE has failed to provide documentation showing that inspections were conducted in all required classrooms in past years, despite numerous requests from WNYC over several months.

Stringer has asked all documentation to be provided by December 6, 2019 . DOE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“You’re really not supposed to worry about [your kids] in the safe space of a classroom,” Stringer said in the interview. “And when you see lead paint results like this, you suddenly worry about how your children can get poisoned because the city is not doing its job.”

Christopher Werth is a senior editor in WNYC’s Narrative Unit. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_werth.

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