Chicago Public Schools will remove dangerous lead-based paint from about 80 campuses by the end of the summer, officials said Wednesday.
This comes after a WBEZ analysis found long delays at some schools between identifying deteriorating lead paint and removing it. Lead paint can be hazardous if it’s chipping and producing dust and young children are especially vulnerable.
Most of this paint was identified by the school district this spring or early summer, though some was identified earlier, CPS said.
The school district addressed the issue during a monthly Board of Education meeting at CPS headquarters downtown. President Miguel del Valle said there have been “concerns expressed in the past about the timeline” for removal of the damaged paint and asked, “Are we having a problem in that area?”
District Chief Operating Officer Charles Mayfield said the average response time is about 10 working days. It sometimes takes longer because workers have to identify the “root cause” of the damage, he added.
“It’s like when you have a repair in your home where you maybe break down a wall and identify two or three different areas that need to be addressed at that juncture,” Mayfield said.
Previously, CPS told WBEZ about the 10 day average but also shared that the time between identification of paint and its removal depends on several factors, including the location, extent of the damage and the school’s schedule. CPS said it mostly tests and remediates damaged lead-based paint when buildings are not occupied, including during summer and winter breaks.
But Mayfield didn’t address why kids remain in classrooms and other areas where deteriorating lead paint has already been identified. At Dewey Elementary on the South Side, the principal and CPS acknowledged they never blocked off the gym after tests in February confirmed the room was contaminated. Officials said the damage would be repaired before students return in the fall. CPS says school rooms with damaged paint are blocked off while the paint is being removed.
WBEZ previously reported that workers found dangerous chipping lead paint at nearly 120 campuses this past year, according to records from June 2022 to January 2023. A spokesperson told WBEZ all of the paint had been fixed by the end of the school year. But the district’s own records showed at least 11 projects wouldn’t be completed until sometime this summer.
CPS parent Cindy Goga said she was “angry and dismayed” that it took months of complaints for the district to remove lead paint at her school. Her two kids attend McClellan Elementary in Bridgeport and one has special needs. It wasn’t until teachers tested the paint themselves last fall that officials took action.
In a special education classroom and the gym, CPS waited 10 months to fix damage paint it identified in August 2021, records show. In June 2022, CPS then uncovered even more lead paint in the same classroom and one other. It was finally removed six months later, over the most recent winter break. CPS said a lack of communication caused the six-month delay. It didn’t explain the earlier 10-month delay.
“It floors me that CPS has been notified about these things in our building and they just brush us aside and give us false information, try to push things under the rug,” Goga said.
The average public school building in the city is 82 years old and lead-based paint was banned by the federal government in 1978. But many school districts like CPS have older facilities and are likely to have some lead paint. Experts say it’s only dangerous if the paint starts chipping or it creates dust.
The facilities conversation at the board on Wednesday also included discussion about the risks of lead in water amid a push by students and advocates for more environmentally sound schools.
Mayfield said the district tests the water for lead at about 25% of schools each year.
Once a lead-contaminated water pipe is identified, workers pull it from service, flush it and re-test it until lead levels come back to the normal range.
When asked by del Valle if more schools could be tested each year, CPS’ chief facilities officer said he would put together a plan that lays out the costs for more testing, noting that the district had capacity to do more testing but was limited by finances. This was del Valle’s last board meeting as he wraps up four years as president.
Lauren Bianchi, a teacher at Washington High School and chair of the Chicago Teachers Union’s Climate Justice Committee, argued in favor of a “systemic remediation and greening” of all schools.
“My building needs to be torn down and replaced with a state-of-the-art green school building with ventilation, solar panels – facilities that would allow students access to career and technical education,” Bianchi said.
That request comes as CPS says it needs an estimated $3 billion just for emergency repairs across the school system. An analysis of CPS facility needs is due by the end of the year, including costs to modernize schools. District CEO Pedro Martinez said he expects that figure to be at least $10 to $12 billion.
Chicago’s only way to tackle construction projects is by borrowing or taking money from the budget for operating the city’s schools. Nearly every other school district in Illinois can ask voters to decide whether to temporarily raise taxes to support school renovations. Martinez wants state lawmakers to give CPS that same authority.