More Lead Drama in Schools, but More Progress

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

Testing of Lead in School Drinking Fountains

New Orleans  Why aren’t all school districts in the country simply crying “Uncle” and conceding that they will test all of their schools for lead in the water? They must know this is a tide coming towards them that they cannot resist. Yet, still we find foot dragging and, in some cases, the flimsiest of excuses thrown in our way.

Last time we visited this topic, we were noting the progress made by Local 100 with the officials of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) on this issue. As we reported, they were willing to finally accelerate the testing program so that all schools in the district would be tested within 2 to 3 years, rather than the 30 plus they had initially proposed at 10 or so per year. All good. Real progress!

But, not so fast. When Orell Fitzsimmons, director of Local 100’s office in Houston talked to them in more detail about the testing program and shared information about other school districts’ program, it turned out that they were NOT planning to test any of the water fountains. Bizarre, since this is perhaps the main entry point for water to get in our little darlings’ systems. When pushed by the union and some of our school board allies, the response from the district was, “No problem. We have filters on all of the water fountains.” Problem solved.

No, Fitzsimmons and some of our members in maintenance then checked on the water fountains including the models and serial numbers. Whoops! Turns out filters were not installed on water fountains of that era. So, check and checkmate, and the district has now agreed to check all of the water fountains. The question that lingers here and elsewhere, is why the obfuscation. We’re talking about children and their safety. Why play games?

There’s also progress in New Orleans finally. A front page story on lead and a picture of leaders and members from A Community Voice, affiliated with ACORN International, demanding testing in all of the schools is finally making progress. It’s slippery, but the response has come from one of the school board members indicating they will test all schools and are going to use the better protocols from West Virginia which have become the standard nationally exceeding that of the EPA. Louisiana is also pushing the Orleans School board to notify all parents that they need to have their children tested in conformity with Louisiana State law. Needless to say that it’s happening.

Meanwhile, Local 100 members are on the move towards the school board meeting in Dallas and Little Rock at the end of this month to demand testing in these district as well. A meeting with retired workers with lead exposure is also being scheduled in Dallas. It will be interesting to see whether Dallas and Little Rock are learning something from other districts and ready to say “Uncle” and get on with it, or is going to drag this out at the risk of more workers and students?

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

ACV action on Lead in Water in NOLA Schools

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech assembling lead testing kits


The New Orleans Street by Street Battle Between the Old and New

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New Orleans     Urban planning isn’t easy in any city. Add more than three hundred years of history and the challenges of geography between the great Mississippi River, Lake Ponchartrain, and the residue of swampland, the long goodbye of Hurricane Katrina, and the diverse and competing economic interests, and modern city planning faces a constant challenge in New Orleans. A recent addition to this gumbo has been something called the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance or CZO, which proponents contended would bring the city into the modern era, and more pointedly for many interests pull politics out of the process which is always a suspicious, often coded claim, and usually specious.

The adoption of the new CZO found me sitting in a meeting of the City Planning Commission for four hours in order to seek an amended zoning specification where the Affiliated Media Foundation Movement (AM/FM) wanted to locate the studio for the coming internet radio station for ACORN International and our FCC approved 100-watt low power FM radio station, WAMF 90.3. The longer I sat there, the more I felt like I was witnessing in microcosm the battle between old and new for the future of the city as it crashed into the best designs of mice and men in the CZO.

Neighbors paraded back and forth to the microphone for and against something called a “poshtel,” a 50-room hostel-hotel that developers proposed to be built on an empty industrial site in the red-hot Bywater neighborhood near the River several miles below the French Quarter. The plans were clearly within the CZO requirements allowing both residential and tourist developments in the area. One neighborhood association was on board, but business and residents along the proposed site bridled at the notion that the poshtel’s size, patio, bar, restaurant, and itinerant clientele would make the area “party central” with traffic, noise, and bad behavior commonplace. Business owners, led by an impassioned, eloquent plea from a popular barbecue purveyor argued that the neighborhood was typified by “neighborhood businesses,” run by owners that lived in the area. Some opponents argued for an alternative development like the Art Lofts elsewhere in the neighborhood, which many around the city have seen as a poster board for gentrification. The Commission was in a quandary. The CZO clearly allowed the development. They punted in hopes that other design changes might make their decision easier to swallow by the opponents.

A community center specializing in art, performance, dance, and music wanted an exception in the Uptown area of the city to their CZO zoning to be able to do events and a couple of other things, and pulled out everyone they could imagine for an easy unanimous approval. Elsewhere uptown a hotel wanted to expand and also won support.

A proposed Adult Live Performance Venue Study to determine amendments to the French Quarter’s Entertainment District was another warm potato. Adult Live Performance Venue is essentially a euphemism for the “strip clubs” that have defined Bourbon Street and the reputation of New Orleans for generations. Church groups were out to testify en masse. Groups worried about sex-trafficking seeking an age limit of 21, rather than 18 spoke. Club owners spoke against T-shirt shops and in favor of a moratorium that blocked new competition for their businesses. Quarter residents complained about noise and public urination. The study was approved, another skirmish in a perpetual war.

Whatever the claims for the CZO, several thing became clear. Any central planning ordinance that is not porous won’t survive the attack of a thousand cuts, bumps, and bruises that are a standard part of the process. People in the neighborhoods basically don’t want change no matter what the plans might say, unless it is something driven by their friends and neighbors, so happiness will never be part of the process, but populism will also often prevail. No matter the intentions the process is still stacked towards those with resources and power. Politics will never be out of the planning process as long as people are allowed in the system both at the level of the Commission and of course even more so when bumped up to the actual elected leadership of the city at the Council level.

I ran out of the hearing glad to have escaped with unanimous approval for our non-controversial application to build out the studio in our building so that we can go on-the-air on the St. Claude Avenue borderline of the rapidly gentrifying Marigny and Bywater areas below the French Quarter. I was also pretty sure of a couple of things. I was confident that a parking ticket waited for me, and that people power would still overwhelm any planning regime, which I found reassuringly comforting.


Privilege and Politics in School Funding Formulas

photo-originalNew Orleans    In the time of tight public budgets at every level in the uneven recovery from the recession, especially in distressed communities, little is more contentious than the funding formula and the allocation of scarce resources in public schools. There may be few areas in the country where the issue is more weighted than in New Orleans the home of the largest charter school experiment in the country over the last decade, where there continues to be a split system with some schools under the elected board and some still managed by the state.

So, the State of Louisiana is broke as a joke. Not a funny joke, but one leaving the state and much of the educational system in wreck and ruin after the failed narcissism of former governor, Bobby Jindal. Now in the reckoning with reality, the two local New Orleans school systems have tried to work out a formula through the various superintendents and the committees that advise them composed of many of the school principals.

Truth to tell there have been a lot of problems with some of the charters. One of the more noxious has been the sleight of hand used by a number of the charters to steer special needs students anywhere possible as long as it was not their own classrooms. A class action suit brought by national and local civil rights organizations exposed this situation for the venality it represented, but also meant that any funding formula was going to have to do better in supporting special needs students if possible.

It was not a surprise that in the negotiations the often conflicting New Orleans-based school superintendents were able to come to an agreement on a formula, urged and ratified by their advisory committees, but equally unsurprising is the reallocation of funds as the state-based Recovery School District finally grips the reality of return to the Orleans Parish School System. Something was going to have to give, and that turned out to be the “gifted/talented” category. The funding in this category is set to drop under current discussions from $1295 per student down to $375 per pupil. The reductions will be phased in gradually with no school losing more than $170 per student on the average in the coming school year. Seems fair doesn’t it? In fact it was approved 10-1 by the committee. Other organizations from the Urban League to even the Louisiana Association of Charter Schools sent the state board letters of support. Nevertheless, the few schools that are magnet charters for the gifted have squealed like stuck pigs.

Partly that’s because both politics and money demands they play their parts. Politics because their public school student base and more importantly their parents includes people with more clout, louder voices, and deeper pockets than the average public school, so they have a shot that their pleadings might ease the pain. Money, because many of these schools are fundraising juggernauts with their own development staff, tax exempt organizations, and zealot, one-hundred-percent fundraiser parents. From the numbers I happen to hear from one school, Benjamin Franklin High School, they already privately raise more than $1 million to supplement the state and local funds. Though the development team and principal were moaning that they would lose 12% of their funding on their $10 million school budget over the years, they would only lose about $150,000 in this first year, and you get a feeling that is about the dollar amount you could put on whether or not “they protest too much.” The published paycheck for one of the other gifted schools is at the level that she could probably absorb the entire cut in the coming school year by lowering her pay to only $200,000 per year.

People see the schools as privileged, and there is no way to escape that label, since that is also the way the students and their parents see – and talk about — the experience, and why they are so generous in the private fundraising for the schools. Other principles accuse the gifted principals of “driving a smear campaign.” The Republican-sponsor of the bill in the legislature asks the hard question when the state’s pockets are empty: “The gifted-and-talented community gets a very large portion of the pie. And they don’t want to give it up. I don’t want to penalize one group over another, but there are limited funds. Do we take the funds away from the disabled and give them to the gifted?”

Funding fights are hardball, but this one is a good example of a time when it makes sense not to count the dollars, but the votes, and play the long game by learning more about grace, than grab.

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Can Hospitals Afford NOT to Be Ready for Disaster?

Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital stands partially submerged in flood waters on Sept. 8, 2005, in east New Orleans, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (James Nielsen/AFP/Getty Images)

Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital stands partially submerged in flood waters on Sept. 8, 2005, in east New Orleans, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (James Nielsen/AFP/Getty Images)

Baton Rouge   The headline caught my eye. Sheri Fink, author of what has to be the definitive case study of a hospital in crisis post-Katrina, the award-winning Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, had written an op-ed piece in the Times entitled, “Can Hospitals Afford to Be Ready for Disaster.” You can probably already see my head scratching. I had written a book about Katrina myself, The Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons for Disaster. The one lesson I felt confident of was that we finally had a national, and certainly a community, consensus that we had to be ready for disaster, so for me the question was really, “Can Hospitals Afford NOT to be Ready for Disaster?”

The issue was an important one that is now lost in the bureaucratic maze. The Bush Administration started the wheels turning in 2007 post-Katrina and the Obama Administration proposed a draft for public comment in 2013. The language is stuck now in legal review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on an extension of a 90-day legal review. The whole rule though is on a 3-year timetable, so if not finalized, we’re left with nothing.

You might say, “…but that can’t happen here.” We’ve had Katrina, Sandy Hook, Ebola, and now Zika all highlighting the need for disaster preparedness and, worse, proving over and over again how few health care facilities are ready and able. Please remember the Katrina situation involved nursing homes so unprepared for evacuation that many elderly were trapped and drowned. Memorial Hospital, the old Baptist facility, was in such a crisis mode as Fink has documented that “two desperate doctors later said that they hastened the death of patients who had waited days in the heat for rescue.” Reading the book, there was little doubt that many of these patients would have had years left to live had there been a different set of responses.

The rule would change much of those worries. It would affect 68,000 providers across the whole range of the health care industry and not just hospitals and nursing homes but kidney dialysis centers, mental health facilities, home health and the whole shebang.

So, this is a no-brainer, right? Well, it should be but you’ve already probably guessed that it would be if we had a public health system, but with a private dominated healthcare system if administrators can avoid spending the money, then emergency preparedness is at the bottom of the list. Fink even noted that there are 250 California hospitals that have still not been “retrofitted, replaced, or removed from service” 45 years after the Sylmar earthquake killed dozens at California hospitals. A professor in Maryland noted that an administrator was probably calculating that if they had to spend a couple of hundred thousand and they never had a disaster, then they lost revenue. This is topsy-turvy of course. You spend to prepare, while hoping you never have to meet a disaster. The same prof though noted that if the facility spent the money and faced a disaster and were ready, they would make a killing, but “how do you do a budget analysis on that?” Wow! The warped priorities here just takes your breath away, and where is Senator Charles Grassley from Iowa when we need him reminding so many of these facilities that they are tax exempt so why is “making a killing” a priority anyway!

We need this rule and probably a lot more. Time to Boy Scout up and get in touch with your Senators and Congressmen to reach out to the OMB and the Department of Health and Human Services and remind them that “Be Prepared” is not just a slogan, but a lifesaver!


The Dilution of Class Privilege on Mardi Gras

s.mgpastpresent.2New Orleans    Mardi Gras season is rough for year round residents. It’s not the going to parades but navigating the parade routes so that regular work and life maintains its semi-normal routine. It’s also stomaching the symbols.

Mardi Gras marks the beginning of Lent on the Christian calendar with Easter forty days away. Historically, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a guilty pleasure rife with class and racial entitlement. And, like so many rock-ribbed Southern traditions, the traditions of the upper class continue unabated. The daily newspapers continue to parade front page pictures on the Sunday before Mardi Gras of an elderly white man anointed as the King of the Rex parade, the premier old line outfit, and a young, white woman debutante as the Queen of Rex. This year’s queen looked twelve in her picture. She is no doubt an accomplished young woman who is now attending Yale and speaks Mandarin, but has never gone to school and hardly ever lived in New Orleans, as distant from her disloyal subjects as the planet Mars. The uptown island of wealth and privilege in New Orleans continues to float aimlessly in a sea that is 60% African-American and one of the most crime ridden and poorest cities in the United States. There’s something distinctly unappealing about watching self-proclaimed royalty throwing trinkets to the out stretched arms of the masses, but maybe that’s just me, because it is certainly deeply rooted in the New Orleans culture.

There’s pushback though. The Endymion parade celebrated its 50th Mardi Gras and along with other so-called super-krewes have left Rex in the dirt as the most popular parades. Endymion was a middle and working class parade interloper now claiming thousands of members, open to pretty much anyone willing to come up with a couple of grand. Not for everyone certainly, but compared to the high society swells, a democratic revolution. Such parades chose their royalty from the ranks of local and other celebrities focusing on the crowds and popularity, maybe even the fun of it all, rather than the pomp and prestige.

The post-Katrina surge of the young and the hips detached from any tradition, but looking for a good time, has also leavened some of the more troubling pieces of the Mardi Gras tradition and added a somewhat more democratic tinge to the experience. The African-American Indian “tribes” and costumes were neighborhood based and outside of the main culture, and now newcomers have brought some of the same topsy-turvy to tradition. There are walking parades, makeshift floats or none at all, and costumes of all description often to musical accompaniment. There are parades for dogs and neighborhood parades of floats the size of a shoebox. Some are bawdy and racy, while others are political and satirical. Many are unannounced without routes or routines and therefore all of the more exciting. When you hear the music, you can run to your front stoop and with some joy and surprise catch a glimpse of the passing parade.

Gradually the people are stealing up on the big whoops and making Mardi Gras their own as the natives and the newcomers make it more fun and celebratory, rather than a painful parody of the city’s racial and class divide.


This Lead Thing is Serious, Why Aren’t More People Taking it that Way?

Susanne.Posel-Headline.News_.Official-flint.water_.lead_.epa_.river_.01_occupycorporatismNew Orleans   The stories coming out of Flint, Michigan are a scandal. Political indifference and economic decline coupled with the general unwillingness of our collective will to finance and repair infrastructure has produced the specter of an entire populations reduced to the level of undeveloped countries without potable water to drink. Worse, they are being poisoned by lead with likely permanent impact.

I live and work with a self-described “lead head,” as the small band of activists, researchers, and, sadly, families coping with these kinds of disasters describe themselves humorously. In August 2013 in fact, I interviewed Beth Butler, President of the Lead Safe America Foundation on Wade’s World so it was easy to get a deeper understanding of what is happening here. In fact Tamara Rubin, the energetic and evangelical executive director of the Lead Safe America is heading soon to Flint to offer several hundred free lead tests to children currently not eligible for testing for lead problems in Flint.

Talking to Butler, it seems that the only children actually being tested in Flint now are children five years old and younger. In Louisiana, where Butler lives, there is a state requirement for universal testing of all children five and under already, although pediatricians routinely just don’t bother even though it is reimbursable by Medicaid as well. Lead Safe and even some pediatricians argue that Medicaid reimbursements should be held up until there is full compliance. Not so in Michigan obviously. Admittedly, the percentages of damage are the highest in that demographic, but as Butler passionately points out, “it damages everybody who is contaminated by the way!” Lead Safe argues that everyone now needs to be tested, especially girls and women who might later transfer lead poisoning in the womb.

Butler and Lead Safe warn that even the simple finger-prick test for lead only is examining a 30-day window of lead impact, and not whether lead is already bonded into an individual’s bone structure. In Flint, especially other tests need to be made available in order to determine whether or not the lead invasion has breached even more bodies.

What can be done? Some people are being given water filters in Flint. The gold standard is triple-osmosis filters and that’s good with a caveat. Just like the infrastructure, such filters will also have to be maintained and changed, and they would be needed in all homes and all businesses. Butler, who has changed the filter in her home’s system, asks rhetorically, “How many are going to change those filters?”

If you have lead inside you now, and at some level we all do no matter where we live as the residue of lead paint and leaded gasoline continues, you have to live and eat differently with lots of calcium and iron and vitamin C to promote absorption. More seriously nutritionists and doctors attuned to this issue need to monitor the community in recovery and triage the more serious cases for assistance. As a veteran community organizer, Butler argues that without building strong community organizations that can constantly make the demands that are needed and force accountability, this is also not going to get better in Flint or the rest of America.

And, if you think this is just something isolated in the deindustrialized rust belt of America, take a deep breath in some cleaner air, because darned if overnight construction in the Longworth building of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, didn’t bring down ten cafeteria workers who became sick from dust residues of lead paint removal, temporarily closing down the cafeteria, a favorite of Congressional members. God know what shape the construction workers, likely contract, immigrant laborers, are in and given the impact of lead on brain functioning even in adults, who knows what factor it may play in the curious craziness of Congress in these times.

Seriously though, lead has to be taken much more seriously!