A group of environmental organizations is pushing for a law that requires elementary schools in Illinois to test for high levels of lead in drinking fountains, sinks and other water sources because they say school districts aren’t likely to test without prodding.

Lead, which is particularly dangerous for young children, can cause behavioral problems, learning disabilities and other health issues. 

“There’s no safe level of lead that we can give to children,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the umbrella organization Illinois Environmental Council and a backer of the bill. “In this case, we need to be absolutely sure we’re not providing a continuous source of lead in their environment — we’re not poisoning our children.”

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At the same time, schools and towns around the state are questioning who should pay for testing given the current financial conditions of state government, public schools and the municipalities that may be called on to help fund such an effort.

A bill that would require schools to test for lead passed the Illinois Senate, 48-5, in May and will potentially be considered in the House during the Veto Session that begins in November. The bill doesn’t propose any state funding for the testing, which has schools and municipalities pushing back.

“We think it’s something that should be done,” said Michael Chamness, a spokesman for the Illinois Association of School Administrators. “On principle, we are against unfunded state mandates.”

The school administrators, an association of superintendents, doesn’t oppose the bill, Chamness said. Rather, the superintendents just want clarification on how to pay for both the testing and any costs related to addressing problems, he said.

The bill, which is similar to those being pushed in other states, would mandate that both public and private primary education school buildings built before 1987 be tested. (Lead pipes were banned from buildings following a federal law passed the year prior.)

There are approximately 2,600 public schools and 1,200 private schools across the state serving preschool through fifth grade, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education. It’s unclear how many of those were built before 1987. The requirement would also affect municipal water suppliers who would be responsible for the testing. 

Heather Steans

State Sen. Heather Steans

State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago), who sponsored the legislation, said the national attention focused on Flint, Michigan’s lead-contaminated drinking water highlighted the need to test water in elementary schools. When Chicago Public Schools began testing for lead earlier this year — resulting in more than 100 schools testing positive for high levels — the need to focus statewide became even more evident, Steans added.

“When you test in CPS, you realize, yes, there really is lead in the water,” she said. “I believe there probably is a problem” statewide.

Indeed, cities on record opposing the bill say it was inevitable that widespread lead testing in older buildings would be necessary, especially in light of the Flint example.

“This has been decades in the making,” said Patrick Hayes, legal director for the city of Rockford. “It’s going to take a while to find an approach that makes sense.”

The Illinois Municipal League, an advocacy group for local governments, opposes the bill because the organization doesn’t believe municipalities that supply public water should be on the hook for costs of problems that usually stem from a building’s internal plumbing.   

“We have concerns about who the responsibility falls onto for some of the testing,” said Brad Cole, executive director of the municipal group.   

Jennifer Hamm, assistant superintendent of finance and operations for Galesburg District 205, said many school districts are concerned about the costs of mandated testing.

“We have school districts in our area … that are borrowing against the next year’s tax levy to finish off the school year,” she said. “For those districts, it is a big concern.”

Hamm understands the need for testing — her community in Downstate Galesburg has been affected firsthand by lead exposure after high levels of lead were found in the drinking supply. Schools were tested last spring but the results didn’t show high lead levels, she said.

Even though it’s important, Hamm said schools are feeling squeezed financially and facing difficult choices.  

“When you’re giving less money than you’ve ever given before and you’re requiring more and more from them, something has got to give,” Hamm said. “If there’s a choice … they’re going to turn on their lights and pay their teachers.”

CPS lead testing results

Roger Eddy, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, also noted that vendors are likely to drive up prices for water testing after it becomes a requirement.

“My experience with something like that as a mandate is it’s going to cost a lot more,” he said. “It has to be done and the vendors know.”

Eddy said it’s “a tremendous undertaking” and districts are going to need help paying for it.

“The number one consideration has to be the safety of the kids. There is no question about that,” he said. “If everybody believes it’s important then we should be willing to pay for it, too.”

Among some of the state’s larger school districts, a few have done their own testing. Naperville Community Unit School District 203 and Springfield School District 186 recently conducted tests for lead and have not yet found high levels in water sources. Springfield schools conducted only “random testing” in some buildings, a spokeswoman said.

District U-46 in Elgin, Plainfield School District 202, Rockford School District 205 and Valley View School District 365U have not recently tested for lead in water sources, district representatives said. Rockford is considering testing, according to a spokeswoman.