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Why Isn’t Elsie Arntzen More Concerned About Lead in Montana Schools?

Exposure to even low levels of lead is incredibly damaging to children, threatening irreversible brain damage and long-term physiological harm.

The Mayo Clinic’s web site notes that “exposure to even low levels of lead can cause damage over time, especially in children. The greatest risk is to brain development, where irreversible damage can occur. Higher levels can damage the kidneys and nervous system in both children and adults. Very high lead levels may cause seizures, unconsciousness and death.”

Despite these obvious risks and despite reporting many Montana schools may have high levels of lead in the drinking water used by students and staff, Superindent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen seems more interested in a jurisdictional fight than in protecting kids.

Back in July, when the Department of Public Health and Human Services proposed a rule change mandating lead testing in all Montana schools, Arntzen objected, complaining that her agency was not properly consulted, before demanding an extension that would delay testing:

“[The] Department of Environmental Quality, as well as DPHHS and the agency of OPI, Education Advocates Association, all need to sit down and discuss the impacts and figure out how we can manage getting from ‘point A to point B,’ in making sure our students are safe. But being excluded from a conversation is what has happened. That lack of transparency, that lack of conversation, is poor leadership and very poor government.

That same lack of urgency was on full display when Arntzen was interviewed by the Montana Free Press for its Montana Lowdown Podcast later that month. Rather than pressing for immediate action, Arntzen, again stressing the importance of her agency, suggested that elementary age kids could just continue to drink lead-tainted water for a couple of years until she could get something to the Legislature:

“Patience is going to be needed for this,” Arntzen said. “We are going to be pressing for this in front of interim committees before the Legislature comes again in 2021. … The Office of Public Instruction and other stakeholders, education advocates, were not even invited to the table in a broad, meaningful discussion. … That’s not good government, that is not transparent government.”

Montana kids need testing and remediation of water that is tainted with lead. Voluntary testing conducted in 2018 showed that three-quarters of Montana school districts had some level of lead in their water systems. Here in Helena, the old Jim Darcy school showed results that shocked the researchers:

One sample from Jim Darcy School in Lewis and Clark County tested at 244 ppb – sixteen times the mandatory EPA cut-off for water utilities.

With troubling results like that in districts across the state—and many schools not even tested—it’s indefensible for Arntzen to prioritize an agency turf war over the physical and mental health of Montana students.

Fortunately, Montana voters will have the ability to vote in 2020 for a candidate who will put the health and education of our public school students first. When asked about the lead issue in Montana schools, Democratic candidate Melissa Romano told the Montana Free Press that lead in schools is a “safety issue” and that “it is the role of the Superintendent to find ways to help those schools” that find high levels of lead in their water systems and struggle to pay for remediation.

Rather than Arntzen’s approach, which seems to be waiting for the Legislature to act, Romano said that if she were Superintendent, she would “be working with every elected official, every agency, going after federal money to find a solution to the problem.”

While both Arntzen and Romano acknowledge that lead remediation in our public schools might be a complicated and expensive issue, only one seems to have any sense of urgency about an issue that is currently affecting our children. While Arntzen wants to wait two years for an uncertain legislative fix, that will mean young kids will be exposed to lead, which is unsafe at any level.

Remediating the lead in Montana schools is not just a moral imperative; it’s an educational imperative as well. The Education Law Center reports that lead exposure has been linked to almost 300,000 cases of ADHD in American children and a study by the Detroit Department of Public Health and Detroit Public Schools found a strong link between exposure to lead and special education status and academic achievement.

Testing lead levels in public schools the right thing to do and the financially sensible thing to do. Let’s elect someone who understands that to head the Ofice of Public Instruction.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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