Janet Cruz again tackles clean water in schools with lead contaminant study request
Janet Cruz wants to 'Get the Lead Out' of Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Janet Cruz, Chris King
Several Hillsborough County Schools have lead in the water.

For the third year in a row, Sen. Janet Cruz is working to ensure public schools have access to clean drinking water for students.

But this year’s bill (SB 834) differs from the previous two iterations in that it does not require state funding or issue an unfunded mandate to local school districts. All three bills in 2019, 2020 and this year’s Legislative Session carry the same name, “drinking water in public schools.” But each bill was different.

This year’s version would require the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) to conduct a study establishing the prevalence of lead in public school drinking water and the effects of that lead exposure.

Cruz took on the issue in 2019 after discovering that 130 Hillsborough County public schools, many located in her district, were built before 1986 and had old pipes that could leak lead into drinking water. Of those schools, 11 were already found to have lead concentrations above the 15 parts-per-billion threshold that is considered contaminated.

The requested study in her bill would analyze the effect of lead on children’s health, growth and mental development; the financial impact to the state on those effects; how much each public school district in the state is affected by lead contaminants; the cost to maintain lead pipes in public schools; and the cost for the state to provide water filters for drinking fountains.

OPPAGA would be required to submit the study to the Governor, President of the Senate and Speaker of the House by Jan. 1, 2022.

Without an included fiscal impact on this year’s bill, Cruz might find an easier path to approval in a Legislature that bucked both of her previous bills.

The 2020 bill would have required state coordination with local school districts to determine where filters were needed and require certain schools to install them. The 2019 bill went even further, requiring districts to not only provide water filters, but to include signage and barcodes to track drinking sources. Both failed because the required funding was found to be indeterminate, a kiss of death for any bill in the conservative legislature.

Any funding ask this year would have amounted to an even larger climb, with the Legislature facing tough budget decisions amid revenue shortfalls arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis.

And at least in Cruz’s district, funding has largely been secured privately through Cruz’s charity initiative, Get the Lead Out.

By late summer of 2019, that initiative had already raised $100,000 for water filters in schools.

Cruz and her staff researched the cost independently by speaking with companies that sell filters and found they can be purchased for as little as $20 per filter and only need to be changed once a year, greatly reducing the fiscal impact. Further, Cruz told Florida Politics school maintenance staff can install the filters, saving further funds by not having to hire installers.

Cruz’s 2021 bill has yet to have a House companion. Her bill has also not yet been referred to committees for debate, though it was only just filed Tuesday.

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected].


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