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  1. Opinion

A hometown politician pushes for what fellow lawmakers didn't: clean water for kids

Florida Sen. Janet Cruz couldn't get lawmakers to agree to lead filters for water fountains like the one at this Tampa elementary school. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times (2018)]
Published Jun. 22

This is a story of a small but significant measure that failed to pass in the Florida Legislature — oh, you've heard that one before? — and how the job might get done anyway for kids in public schools.

Senate bill 66 seemed so straightforward, so both-sides-of-the-aisle, you'd think even that polarized pack in of politicians in Tallahassee could get behind it.

Following news about concerns of lead in the drinking water in our schools, Sen. Janet Cruz put forward a bill to get filters installed in drinking fountains built before 1986 with lead pipes and the possibility of some amount of lead in the water.

It should be said that water fountains are used with great enthusiasm in schools in our particularly sweltering state.

A no-brainer on behalf of young students, right?

But the bill died anyway.

Why? An analysis found the cost of doing this statewide to be "indeterminate." A later estimate had the price tag at $11.7 million, a number Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, politely calls "incorrect."

"I came home frustrated I couldn't get this bill passed," she said. "I thought, 'If you guys can't determine the fiscal (cost), then I will. And I'll do a pilot program in Hillsborough," her home county.

She found a company. Filters could be simply installed by school maintenance staff for as low as $20 each, she said, and would need to be replaced only once a year.

As evidence, Alachua County was already doing this at a modest cost.

So Cruz has a summer job of sorts, trying to privately raise $250,000 through a non-profit to get filters installed in Hillsborough's 136 pre-1986 schools.

"Get The Lead Out," the fledgling campaign is called, which if you think about it could also speak to her colleagues in Tallahassee. She still plans to re-introduce a bill next session on behalf of the estimated 1,746 older schools statewide.

Already, Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister and his wife have committed $25,000.

"I think it's that important," the sheriff says. "Is there any acceptable level (of lead in the drinking water)? There isn't any to me." Cruz is also planning a campaign for folks who want to contribute even $20.

So do you remember that vintage bumper sticker about how it would be nice if schools had the money to buy everything they needed while the government had to hold bake sales to buy bombers? And here we are still.

You hear stories of parents pitching in to buy portable air conditioners for classrooms, of more affluent schools adopting those less so. The PTA at South Tampa's Roosevelt Elementary raised enough money to replace the school's water fountains in the interest of clean drinking water for the kids and now budgets enough to replace the filters yearly.

Kim Klace, former president of the Roosevelt PTA, told me yes, it's frustrating when government doesn't fund what citizens pay taxes for, more frustrating how abysmally Florida ranks in education spending.

"Some of us in our socio-economic situation, we can supplement" what schools need, she says. But what about the ones that can't?

Cruz said her campaign is no slight to school districts, which are "doing the best they can with what they have."

"How long do we continue to let our kids sip from these water fountains when it's a simple fix?" she says, a good question for the next session.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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