Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Opinion

Joe Henderson: Schools have catching up to do on revelations about lead in the water

At the Hillsborough school board meeting Tuesday, Superintendent Jeff Eakins unloaded on the Tampa Bay Times.

The normally affable Eakins was steaming about the Times report that the district knew some schools had high levels of lead in the drinking water but kept quiet about it until reporters started asking questions.

He appeared to be bothered by the large headline over the story that read "They didn’t tell."

Well, um … they didn’t tell.

That’s the point.

Lead has been linked to a myriad of health issues and can adversely affect brain development in young children. When you are running a public institution that serves about 200,000 students in 230 schools and you learn of a problem like this, you don’t keep a lid on it.

You just don’t.

RELATED: Hillsborough schools will begin disclosing more data about lead in drinking water

You notify parents immediately. You call a news conference. You explain that a problem has been discovered and you are taking immediate action.

The district now says it will proceed with full transparency by posting detailed results about which schools have been affected by lead, but it shouldn’t have taken a newspaper investigation to make that happen. Silence is never a good strategy when dealing with issues like this.

Two of Eakins’ top lieutenants, deputy superintendent for operations Chris Farkas and district communications chief Grayson Kamm, admitted as much.

The wise play would have been to get ahead of the problem because that gives the public confidence that steady hands are on the wheel.

The weird thing about this is that Eakins has generally had those steady hands.

Since taking over as superintendent in 2015, Eakins has helped navigate the district through a debt crisis. There were thorny negotiations with the teachers’ union, and the cranky Florida Legislature appeared intent on turning funding for public education into a contact sport.

There were major problems with air conditioning, an overhaul of the bus system, and school security became a major focus after the massacre at Parkland. The district’s graduation rate has also improved dramatically on his watch.

And, commendably, in 2017, the district began testing for lead.

Eakins approached those issues methodically, because that’s his way. He has always been available and was willing to answer tough questions without losing his cool. That was just what was needed after the volatility that marked the last year of former Superintendent MaryEllen Elia’s reign.

That’s why this turn has seemed so out of character.

Interestingly, Eakins had declined to be interviewed for the original story. That was another mistake on his part. He is the leader of this district and his voice needed to be heard during the original reporting. If he didn’t like the tone of the questions he would have been asked, that would have been the time to make his point — but he didn’t.

Two of his strongest supporters on the board, Sally Harris and April Griffin, didn’t have his back this time. And they were right.

Harris noted, "If we had been forthcoming with this, then we wouldn’t even be up here having this discussion. We can never fall back on anything less than total transparency."

And Griffin hit the bullseye when she said parents have a right to know about these issues up front. She also criticized the district’s overall communication, which she called "below average for too long."

At the board meeting, Eakins said, "I want to be clear about this. In every school, every time we’ve tested, our water has met the same standards for safety as the drinking water in your home. We aren’t creating problems, we’re finding them and fixing them."

Imagine, now, if he had said that publicly at a news conference called by the district to release the findings.

It would have been called leadership. And the headline would have been different.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column stated incorrectly when the school district announced it would test for lead.

Comments
Editorial: FDA acts to keep e-cigarettes from kids

Editorial: FDA acts to keep e-cigarettes from kids

The federal Food and Drug Administration is bringing important scrutiny to the increasing use of e-cigarettes, requiring companies that make and sell them to show they are keeping their products away from minors. Vaping is the new front in the nation...
Published: 09/18/18
Editorial: Senate should delay vote on Kavanaugh

Editorial: Senate should delay vote on Kavanaugh

The Senate and the nation needs to hear more about the sexual assault allegation against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Setting aside Kavanaugh's judicial record, his political past and the hyper-partisan divide over his nomination, a no...
Published: 09/17/18
Editorial: Tampa council has another chance to show it takes Stovall House changes seriously

Editorial: Tampa council has another chance to show it takes Stovall House changes seriously

The Tampa City Council has yet to hear a compelling reason to allow a private social club in a residential neighborhood off Bayshore Boulevard, and a final meeting on the matter scheduled for Thursday offers the council a chance to show the diligence...
Published: 09/14/18
Editorial: Focus on Hurricane Florence, not defending poor response in Puerto Rico

Editorial: Focus on Hurricane Florence, not defending poor response in Puerto Rico

Hurricane Florence began lashing down on the Carolinas Thursday and was expected to make landfall early Friday, washing over dunes, downing trees and power lines and putting some 10 million people in the path of a potentially catastrophic storm. Flor...
Published: 09/13/18
Editorial: Scott sends positive signal on Supreme Court appointments

Editorial: Scott sends positive signal on Supreme Court appointments

Gov. Rick Scott has headed down a dangerous path by announcing he has started the process to fill three upcoming vacancies on the Florida Supreme Court as he heads out the door. But to his credit, the governor indicated his "expectation’’ is that he ...
Published: 09/12/18
Updated: 09/14/18
Editorial: Stalled U.S.-Cuba relations hurting Florida business

Editorial: Stalled U.S.-Cuba relations hurting Florida business

After an encouraging start, the breakdown in America’s reset with Cuba is a loss for both sides and for the state of democracy across the region. Havana and Washington are both to blame, but the Trump administration’s hard line with Cuba is out of sy...
Published: 09/12/18
Lessons from Moonves’ ouster

Lessons from Moonves’ ouster

If the swift departure of CBS Chairman Les Moonves has a bright side, it’s that a major television network took accusations of sexual harassment against its chief executive seriously enough to hold him accountable and obtain his resignation even at t...
Published: 09/11/18
Updated: 09/14/18
Editorial: Banks should not shut down campaign accounts for marijuana ties

Editorial: Banks should not shut down campaign accounts for marijuana ties

Two banks have taken the retaliatory step of closing down the campaign account of a statewide candidate because she received contributions from the medical marijuana industry. Nikki Fried, the Democratic nominee for agriculture commissioner, has been...
Published: 09/10/18
Updated: 09/14/18
Editorial: Florida Supreme Court wisely kills misleading charter school amendment

Editorial: Florida Supreme Court wisely kills misleading charter school amendment

Voters should know what they’re voting on, which is why the Florida Supreme Court was entirely correct to strike the deviously worded Amendment 8 from the Nov. 6 ballot. The amendment would have significantly expanded charter schools in Florida by le...
Published: 09/10/18
Updated: 09/11/18
Editorial: Genshaft steered USF to new heights — and it should keep climbing

Editorial: Genshaft steered USF to new heights — and it should keep climbing

University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, who announced Monday she will retire in July, will leave behind a remarkable legacy. The university’s longest-serving president led USF’s transformation from a commuter school to a destination univ...
Published: 09/10/18