The Governance Responsibility to Protect a City’s Children

October 10, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we report on the physical and fiscal challenges of the Detroit Public Schools, before zooming south to assess whether the complex municipal financing in Puerto Rico’s recovery has perhaps exacerbated the U.S. territory’s debt challenges.

Protecting a City’s Children. A key challenge in Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment from the nation’s largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy was restoring trust in its public schools—a critical step if families with kids were going to move from the suburbs into the emptied city. That, of course, required making the schools not just trustworthy places for learning, but also safe—and not just safe from a gang perspective, but especially here from water contamination—Flint, not so far away, after all, is on many parents’ minds. Thus, the school district is developing plans to make drinking water safe inside its buildings, especially after a review of testing data shows one school had more than 54 times the allowable amount of lead under federal law, while another exceeded the regulated copper level by nearly 30 times. The Detroit News reviewed hundreds of pages of water reports for 57 buildings which tested for elevated levels of lead and/or copper in the water to provide a detailed look how excessive the metal levels were in the most elevated sources.

The News effort comes as Detroit Public School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti noted: “‎We discontinued the use of drinking water when concerns were identified without any legal requirement to do so, and hydration stations will ensure there is no lead or copper in all water consumed by students and staff, with the Superintendent yesterday reported the system expects to spend nearly $3.8 million enacting a long-term solution to widespread lead and copper contamination in students’ drinking water, with the cost including $741,939 to install 818 hydration stations and filters, $750,000 for water coolers until completed installation of the stations in the summer of 2019, $539,880 for environmental remediation costs, $1.2 million for maintenance services, and $282,000 for facilities maintenance—a tab unanimously approved yesterday by the Detroit Community Schools Board, with long-term plan to get drinking water flowing again inside the 106 Detroit schools after faucets were turned off ahead of the school year. The announcement followed Monday’s by Supt. Vitti, when he reported that he and the school board will reveal corporate funders for some $2 million in hydration stations he wants to install across the district.

The need, as the survey revealed, is urgent: among the elevated levels reported by the Detroit Public School District includes a kitchen faucet inside Mason Elementary-Middle School which had more than 54 times the amount of lead permitted the Safe Drinking Water Act; a drinking fountain inside Mark Twain School for Scholars was tested at more than 53 times the federal threshold; a drinking fountain on the first floor near the kitchen of Bethune Elementary-Middle School that had copper levels at nearly 30 times the permissible level—even as DPS officials still await the test results of 17 more buildings. Nevertheless, from the results so far, there is a failing grade: more than half of the 106 schools inside Michigan’s largest school district have contaminated water. Indeed, with EPA recommending lead limits of 15 micrograms per liter or 15 part per billion, water samples at Mason found extreme elevations of lead at Mason, Twain, Davis Aerospace Technical, and Bagley, and extreme levels of copper at Bethune Academy of the Americas elementary-middle school and Western International. Unsurprisingly, public health and water safety experts report that schools should use a tougher standard for lead levels, and nationally recognized Virginia Tech water expert Marc Edwards said: “Those are not good. There is no doubt there are worrisome lead levels: Whenever you take hundreds of thousands of samples in a school, you are going to get some results that are shockingly high.” At a Board of Education meeting last month, Superintendent Vitti said the most practical, long-term, and safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools would be to provide water hydration stations in every building—systems currently used in public school districts, including in Flint, Royal Oak, and Birmingham, as well as Baltimore: these stations, in addition to cooling water, more importantly remove copper, lead, and other contaminants.

Drinking water screening reports demonstrate that water was collected at some schools in April and others in August, with school district officials reporting sampling began in the district in the spring and continued through last August. In September, Superintendent Vitti said that DPS, through its environmental consulting firm, ATC Group, is following EPA protocol for collecting water samples, adding: “If testing occurred at a school after the regular school year, then it was done during summer school, where nearly 80 of our schools were offering classes,” adding that many of the schools with high levels had already identified for concern two years ago—and that those were the first group of schools to move to water coolers. Supt. Vitti initiated water testing of the 106 school buildings in May and August after initial tests results found that 16 schools showed high levels of copper and/or lead. Another eight tested for elevated levels in the spring after they were identified with concerns in 2016. Last month, the DPS District received more test results, which found an 33 additional schools with elevated contaminant levels, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 in a District already overwhelmed by some $500 million in building repair needs; moreover, the bad gnus could worsen: the total number of schools with high levels could increase as school officials await more test results on another 17 schools.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, noted for her expertise in Flint, who is a pediatrician and public health expert, concurred that Detroit’s policymakers need to set a much more aggressive limit on allowable amounts of lead in schools. In addition, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s school sampling guidance recommends that schools address fixtures which measure above 5 micrograms per liter, the same EPA standard as bottled water, according to Dr. Hanna-Attisha; the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an action level of just 1 microgram per liter for drinking water in child care facilities and schools. Thus, as Dr. Hanna-Attisha warns: “This should be the District’s action level,” in a letter she co-authored with Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering, a consulting firm—a letter with which Superintendent Vitti said he agrees.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, who witnessed lead levels in some Flint homes reach 22,000 micrograms per liter, said U.S. EPA school sampling guidance encourages schools to sample every drinking water tap a single time unless lead is detected at greater than 20 micrograms per liter, noting: “One low single tap sample is not sufficient to clear a tap as a potential source of lead, because lead release is sporadic.” Her words come with the benefit of her experience and practice as an associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, as well as Director of the MSU-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative. She adds: “It is not appropriate to use a single low sample that was taken as a follow-up to a high sample to conclude that a drinking tap is ‘safe to drink,’ although this is how many schools have interpreted sampling data.” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the Director and Health Officer for the Detroit Health Department, said she recommends parents of children 6 and younger be tested for blood lead levels, because of the Motor City’s history of elevated levels for children, which has been primarily due to lead paint in homes, adding that the elevated rates in the tests were concerning: “I think, broadly speaking, I support Dr. Vitti in testing every water source in every school…For any school that comes back with elevated lead levels, the actual reasons for that school is not clear. It can be the infrastructure or the drinking fountain. Providing bottled water and other sources is the right thing to do.”

According to Michigan health officials, children are at higher risk of harm from lead, because their developing brains and nervous systems are more sensitive. Lead can cause health problems for children, including learning problems, behavior problems including hyperactivity, a lower IQ, slowed growth and development and hearing and speech problems. That risk is not just physical, but also fiscal: A key part of Detroit’s chapter 9 plan of debt adjustment approved by the U.S. Judge Steven Rhodes was its focus on the importance of provisions to give incentives for families to move back to the Motor City‒a difficult parental choice in the wake of, four years ago, the Detroit News investigation which reported that nearly 500 Detroit children had died in homicides since 2000.

Notwithstanding the terrible health tragedy in Flint, Michigan has no rules mandating the state’s school districts to test for lead in their water supply, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. According to the GAO, at least eight states require schools to test for lead, and many others assist with voluntary testing. Dr. Khaldun said she supports creating a state law to mandate testing of water sources inside schools—a proposal which would entail substantial costs, creating the query: who will pay—and how?

According to Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Department supports any schools which wish to test, and the Department can offer technical assistance and general information on sampling, result interpretation, and recommended remedial actions in the event of elevated lead and/or copper results, adding that there are fiscal resources “available through the Michigan Department of Education,” and that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is providing information and guidance on best management practices for drinking water in schools to protect the health of students and staff.” In the meantime, the Detroit Public School District is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, with the cost to have stations in every school, one for every 100 students, projected to be $2 million, with Dr. Vitti noting the goal is to deliver clean water, not replace the pipes, or as he put it: “We are not looking to replace the plumbing. The stations address the issue of older plumbing along with weekly flushing.”  

Unequal Treatment? The Financial Oversight and Management Board in Puerto Rico reports that over reliance on outside consultants with conflicts of interest and the failure to invest in a competent workforce have imposed huge costs on and severely weakened the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and other Puerto Rico government agencies, with the report including an entire chapter just on interest rate swap agreements, a complicated and high risk investment which, it estimates, has cost Puerto Rican government entities nearly $1.1 billion when they repeatedly bet the wrong way on interest rate movements—meaning that, instead of these investments reducing Puerto Rico’s debt, government entities, including PREPA, had to take on more debt to pay for the losses. It appears that the swaps, a novel means of transactions to Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank (GDB), where officials made these interest rate bets, or, as the report found, many of the GDB Board members who were required to approve the swap transactions, “were not familiar with the mechanics and risks associated with swaps. Many told us outright they could not describe how a swap worked. Instead, the GDB Board members told us they relied on the advice presented to them by the swap advisor.” That appears to denote that the GDB board members effectively ceded control over their investments in these very risky financial instruments to a third-party swap advisor—an advisor  that earned, and will garner fees for as long as the government of Puerto Rico continued to invest in the swaps, regardless of the outcome—an outcome in this case which entailed enormous losses. Moreover, the report demonstrated that, more generally, as the financial condition of Puerto Rico deteriorated, the deals became more complex and less transparent. An example of the utility PREPA’s overreliance on an outside restructuring advisor, AlixPartners, to lead PREPA’s debt restructuring negotiations with its municipal bondholders, as well as developing PREPA’s business plan and savings initiatives, revealed that PREPA paid Alix Partners $45 million in fees for a debt restructuring deal which was ultimately rejected by the PROMESA Oversight Board, which found the proposed financial agreement called for PREPA to pay more debt than the economy of Puerto Rico could support, and as the Puerto Rico Energy Commission found that the review lacked appropriate due diligence over the ongoing fees for legal counsel, financial advisors, and underwriters that would have accrued had the PREPA restructuring deal moved forward: the Commission specifically noted that the restructuring team charged with ensuring the reasonableness of advisor fees “includes the very advisors whose fees are in question…that is not the arm’s-length relationship necessary to protect consumers from excess fees.”

Investment in Good Governance. For elected state and local leaders, over reliance on consultants can go hand-in-hand with a failure to invest in the technical capacity and expertise of government staff. As noted by a Kobre & Kim report prepared on the evolving fiscal situation in Puerto Rico, PREPA has suffered over the years from a high degree of political interference, including the appointment of hundreds of political appointees to managerial and technical positions without regard for qualifications—appointments which appear to have not only cost considerably from a fiscal perspective, but also weakened the managerial competence of the agency. However, instead of recognizing this reality and implementing labor reforms designed to sharply curtail the influence of political appointees within the agency, the PROMESA Board has instead sought an across-the-board salary freeze and benefit cuts, even as the Board recognizes that PREPA has lost 30% of its workforce since 2012 and has severe shortages of skilled workers in key areas—and that it has developed no plan for workforce training and development, effectively seeming to force PREPA to continue to depend on consultants, rather than build its own expertise.

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