Lawyers: State is obligated to pay for Newark schools' lead fix

By Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on March 29, 2016

NEWARK — Whatever the cost, the state should pay to alleviate infrastructure issues that have caused lead levels in the drinking water at Newark schools to rise above the federal safe level.

That was the message of a letter the Education Law Center sent to state Education Commissioner David Hespe and Schools Development Authority CEO Charles McKenna. The letter, sent Monday, cites the court decisions that created what were then-called Abbott districts (now SDA districts), and ordering state funding at the districts. The ELC is a public interest law firm that represents the students in schools affected by the rulings.

"The state is required to fully fund, undertake and complete all school facilities improvements in districts classified as 'SDA districts,'" the letter reads.

"The DOE and SDA must act expeditiously to address (the) hazardous condition of elevated lead in (Newark Public Schools) facilities."

Since news of the contamination broke earlier this month, the Department of Environmental Protection has been working with the state-controlled school district to re-test water samples at all of the city's school buildings. But, ELC Executive Director David Sciarra said it's the DOE that should take the lead on dealing with Newark's lead.

If the DOE and SDA don't take any action, "we have the option of going to court," Sciarra said. "We don't want to do that...but, we're not going to let this go."

DOE spokesman David Saenz confirmed Monday that the agency had received the letter.

"While it is premature to comment on a response to the letter, it is important to recognize that the first step of testing all schools in Newark is well underway," he said.

Spokespeople for the SDA and Newark schools did not respond to requests for comment on the letter.

It is unclear exactly what lead remediation at the district would entail, or how much it would cost, but city officials have said the lead is likely originating from aging infrastructure in old school buildings.

The letter requests the DOE and SDA immediately put in place a "Potential Emergent Projects" program that would investigate the issue, determine what remediation would cost, and undertake the fixes.

Though he did not detail specifics, in an interview earlier this month, Gov. Chris Christie said the ultimate costs to fix the Newark lead issue would fall to the state.

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