Big Win for School Workers and Children in Houston

Ideas and Issues
Houston Press

Budapest   I may have drug my gear across two Metro lines and two trains and one airport in Paris to end up in Budapest meeting with Mate Varga, the head of the Civic College in Hungary, along the Danube last night with everyone watching Euro 2016, a soccer match, but my mind was also on Houston and the huge victory won by Local 100 for school workers and children. Perhaps it’s not the kind of victory many would expect, like a twenty-five cent raise or an extra break or holiday, but it was the kind of victory that highlights the kind of community-and-worker-based union that we try to build at Local 100. Simply put: we want to get the lead out!

I’m not going to pretend we were early to this fight. For yearsI have heard about the dangers of lead for children. ACORN went after Sherwin-Williams to try to force them to bear up to the responsibility for decades of lead poisoning. We fought in Argentina and Peru to keep lead from continuing to be produced in paint plants over the last decade, years after such production had been banned in the United States and Europe. Furthermore, Louisiana ACORN and then A Community Voice, was constantly involved in lead testing right under my nose in New Orleans day after day. Nonetheless, Flint, Michigan was a wakeup call for us as organizers, just as it was for the whole country. And, following up on Flint, when school districts like Newark started shutting down water fountains and bringing in bottled water for children, we finally got the message. Our union represents school workers and they, and the children they serve, may be in danger, so it was time for action.

Our members in the Houston Independent School District led the way, demanding testing in all of the schools. Orell Fitzsimmons, the office director for the union in Houston went with some of our stewards and met with some of the school trustees and raised the issue, after we got what would have to be described as a brushoff from the district on our initial requests. They had obviously decided to play ostrich on this issue, even after we independently began collecting dirt samples around the schools in Houston and Dallas.

The Houston Press and the daily Houston Chronicle finally jumped on the story with us, so I’ll let the Press tell the rest of the story:

In interviews Wednesday, before the changed policy was announced, School Board Trustee Harvin Moore and United Labor Unions Local 100 Field Director Orell Fitzsimmons said HISD officials had previously told them they planned to test only nine schools for lead each year. When asked about this plan, HISD spokeswoman Lila Hollin said Wednesday, “As far as how many and which ones, that hasn’t been decided yet.”

At a rate of only nine schools per year, with 283 schools to test, the district wouldn’t have finished its tests for more than 30 years.

Yet around 6 p.m. Wednesday, after the Press spoke with Hollin and called numerous HISD employees that day with questions about the district’s lead testing policy, Board of Education trustees received a one-paragraph email from HISD Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt. That email said something very different.

“While we have tested a number of our schools in HISD, we have decided to take a much more proactive and aggressive approach,” Huewitt wrote in the email. “I have asked the facilities team to test all elementary schools this year. All middle schools will be tested in the 2017-2018 school year. Finally, any remaining high schools that have not been completed with the bond program will be tested in the 2018-2019 school year.”

“Results for each facility will be posted on the HISD website as well as a schedule outlining when testing will occur,” Huewitt added.

Fitzsimmons first took an interest in HISD’s lead testing policies after watching the water crisis unfold in Flint, Mich. He submitted multiple public information requests asking about HISD’s records and practices regarding testing for lead contamination, and spoke at the June 9 Board of Education meeting about the district’s need to test all of its schools for lead, starting with elementary schools – the age group most at risk for lead poisoning.

As Houston has proven, finally, on lead, you can run, but you can’t hide. Dallas is next on our target list, but, frankly, now that one district after another is getting the message that they need to do their job of protecting children in school buildings, none of us should allow any schools to not do the same.