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

Jeff Eakins addressed the School Board on Tuesday about what he called "slanted" news coverage of the district's water testing. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Jeff Eakins addressed the School Board on Tuesday about what he called "slanted" news coverage of the district's water testing. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published August 15 2018
Updated August 16 2018

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 didnít tell."

Well, um Ö they didnít tell.

Thatís 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 donít keep a lid on it.

You just donít.

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 shouldnít have taken a newspaper investigation to make that happen. Silence is never a good strategy when dealing with issues like this.

Two of Eakinsí 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 teachersí 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 districtís 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 thatís 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 Eliaís reign.

Thatís 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 didnít like the tone of the questions he would have been asked, that would have been the time to make his point ó but he didnít.

Two of his strongest supporters on the board, Sally Harris and April Griffin, didnít have his back this time. And they were right.

Harris noted, "If we had been forthcoming with this, then we wouldnít 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 districtís 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 weíve tested, our water has met the same standards for safety as the drinking water in your home. We arenít creating problems, weíre 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.

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