It appears the Los Angeles Unified School District is breaking its promise to make the water safe to drink at its more than 800 schools.
It was in April 2008 that an NBC4 investigation first revealed that the water at many LAUSD schools was contaminated with an unsafe amount of lead. Back then, district officials -- including the superintendent -- promised to act quickly to replace old lead pipes and drinking fountains, which were leaching lead into the water.
The problem was supposed to be mostly fixed by now. But investigative reporter Joel Grover has found that the district has quietly backpedaled on its promise, and now plans to deal with water contamination at only a handful of schools.
That infuriates parents like Ansley Thoma, who along with a group of other parents, has been demanding for a year and a half ago that LAUSD remove dangerous lead from the water at all schools. Lead can cause learning disabilities in children.
"We pay taxes. We put everything into what our public schools are supposed to be. And they've let us down, again," Thoma said.
In April 2008, NBC4 tested drinking fountains at 30 schools, and found unsafe amounts of lead in the water at a third of those campuses. In response to our report, the district tested the water at all 800 of its schools, and found 92 percent of them had some fountains dispensing potentially dangerous water. The district estimated it would cost about $100 million to replace aging lead pipes and fountains that were causing the contamination.
So last November, LAUSD convinced voters to approve a bond measure, which would have provided that $100 million for removal of lead from the water. But now, the district says because of the bad economy, it can't get the bond money.
So recently, the school board approved just $10 million to be used to replace old pipes and fountains. District official admit that for now, they will only fix the problem at a few schools with the worst water contamination.
"My best guess at this point is that the majority of schools might not be addressed at this point," said LAUSD Maintenance official Neil Gamble.
Still, the LAUSD insists the water is safe to drink at all schools because, officials say, they continue to enforce what's known as their "flushing policy." That policy says all drinking fountains must be flushed, or run, for at least 30 seconds before they're used each day, to flush out lead that built up in the water overnight.
The job is supposed to be done mainly by janitors. Investigative reporter Joel Grover asked LAUSD official Neil Gamble, "Are you confident that every school is flushing (its water fountains) every day, as it should?"
Gamble replied, "Yes, I am."
Grover decided to see if that was true.
So last week, he and producer Matt Goldberg picked four schools at random, and watched the janitors from the time they started work early in the morning.
At Vine Street Elementary, they witnessed the janitors spending most of his time sweeping the schoolyard. He never flushed the fountains they were watching, which were used all day by students. In fact, at three out of four schools, the fountains NBC4 watched were not flushed as required, which means water some students are drinking could still be tainted with lead.
"Its unfortunate that the children are suffering, and there's possible health issues," Thoma said.
In a written statement to NBC4, LAUSD admitted some of its schools are ignoring the "flushing policy."
So what do district officials plan to do about that?
The statement says, "We are providing training and support and taking disciplinary action, where appropriate, to ensure employees understand and implement the policy."
But the bigger questions remains: When will the district fulfill its promise to replace old lead pipes and fountains that are contaminating water with lead at nearly 800 schools?
Officials tell NBC4 it could be at least 5 to 6 years away. That might be why many LA parents are now sending their kids to school with bottled water, and telling them not to drink from the fountains.