Jersey City Schools Superintendent Norma Fernandez predicted that 14 city schools whose water fountains were shut off because they’re connected to lead service pipes should be back working by June 2023.

Those schools, with a total of 5,000 students, make up the second phase of a district-wide project to give students and staff access to clean water. 

An additional 6,500 youngsters in eight schools and four pre-school centers where water fountains remain off-limits due to lead service line connections.

At this time 14,500 students in 20 of the district’s schools have clean drinking water following the replacement of compromised service lines.

“We’re in the process of evaluating what needs to take place for Phase 3,” Fernandez told a group of parents, educators and concerned citizens at a Friday forum at School 17 organized by Jersey City Together, a nonprofit multi-faith coalition advocating for a variety of community concerns.

The superintendent offered no timetable for completing restoration of water to all school facilities but pledged to “continue to remediate (potable water service) all schools.” Thus far the city has spent $5.9 million on the repair work and expects the second round to cost $7.8 million. Guarini Plumbing, a Jersey City firm, has been contracted for the job.

JCT leader Jim Nelson, whose son spent several years at School 25 in the Heights while its fountains were “bagged over,” said that it wasn’t until after the state Department of Education directed local districts to test their drinking water and make the test results public, that the BOE enlisted the aid of the city and the Municipal Utilities Authority to finance upgrades of the service lines. Those schools found to have the highest levels of lead content in the water were prioritized for lead service line replacement, he said.

“That fact that we don’t have (drinking) water in all our schools is unconscionable.”

Because more than half of the city’s public schools are 100 or more years old — mirroring much of the city’s housing stock — it came as no surprise that they were linked to the municipal water system by lead pipes.

As an interim fix, the BOE arranged for a private vendor to furnish regularly scheduled supplies of bottled water to schools, but that didn’t eliminate all the problems. Dana Patton, whose child attends P.S. 5 downtown said there were instances where “coolers were broken, plastics were found floating in them or students were sent to the nurse with health issues, most likely due to bacteria growing in the coolers.”

“That fact that we don’t have (drinking) water in all our schools is unconscionable,” she said.

Because outside deliveries don’t always keep pace with students’ consumption levels, many parents have to budget extra money for bottled water and water containers their kids tote to school, along with backpacks, book bags, or other gear.

“Water is just as essential as a stellar education,” said Danielle Walker, whose youngest daughter attends Innovation High School in West Bergen, which just recently had fountains reactivated. “If the kids are dehydrated, they can’t be successful,” she added. “In math class, the one thing kids should be subtracting is numbers — not water.”

Eman Youssef said her son carries two large bottles of water along with his books and lunch box to Liberty High School in Journal Square every day.  The extra expense for water “isn’t cheap,” she added. And, because of the extra weight he was carrying, “many days I had to drive him to school.” Liberty High won’t be seeing any water soon since it’s included as part of Phase 3.

Before the meeting, which filled much of the school auditorium, parent Nancy Pokler said that when her son was in first grade at P.S. 5 several years ago, no one from the school’s administration told parents that the fountains had been shut off. It was only after her son brought home a note from the principal asking if parents could bring in “some extra water” that the truth emerged. Today, P.S. 5’s fountains remain off.

For the record, those schools that now have working fountains are: Frank Conwell Middle School 4, Whitney Young Jr. School 15, Cornelia Bradford School 16, Dr. Maya Angelou School 20, Nicolaus Copernicus School 25, Patricia Noonan School 26, Alfred Zampella School 27, Gladys Nunnery School 29, Pres. Barack Obama School 34, Rafael Cordero y Molina School 37, James Murray School 38, Charles DeFuccio School 39, Ezra Nolan School 40, Martin Center for the Arts Middle School 41, Ferris High School and Ferris Jr. Academy, Dickinson High School, Snyder High School, Innovative High School, and Academy 1.

(Snyder, Innovative and Academy 1, with a total enrollment of 1,500 students, were originally part of Phase 2.)

Phase 3 is to include the following: Dr. Martin Luther King School 11, Mahatma Gandhi School 23/Annex, Chaplain Charles Watters School 24, Alexander Sullivan School 30, A. Harry Moore Laboratory School, Infinity Institute, Liberty High School, Renaissance Institute, and the Cunningham, Danforth, Infante and West Side Early Childhood Centers.

On other topics, Superintendent Fernandez told the audience that with the help of state grant funding, the district has begun to roll out programs “for the social and emotional well-being” of older students. Its first such venture, she said is the Hilltop clinic at Dickinson High School with others to follow at Ferris, Lincoln, and McNair. The status of funding is uncertain after this school year, however, she added.

On the infrastructure front, Fernandez said most of the district’s 45 school facilities “need lots of work, and we’re trying to improve them” with things like new windows and ventilation systems. At some point, she added, the hope is that even air-conditioning can be the norm at all schools.

Ward B City Councilmember Mira Prinz-Arey, who attended the meeting along with Ward F representative Frank Gilmore and Ward E representative James Solomon, said, “I look forward to (the water project) coming to completion. The district is doing a great job working with the MUA.”

JCT will conduct its next public meeting sometime in January, Nelson said.

Ron Leir

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...