The Jersey City Board of Education – with a push from the advocacy group Jersey City Together and financial help from the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority – is soon to start the final phase of a multi-year campaign to ensure that students are drinking clean, safe water in their schools’ water fountains.
At a press conference Thursday to discuss the project, Norma Fernandez, city superintendent of schools, announced that those schools still awaiting new fountains will begin to receive them early next year.
Between 2006 and 2013, fountains at most of the city’s public schools had been shut off after high levels of lead were found in the water. As an interim solution, some schools installed five-gallon-jug water coolers.
Ultimately, with public pressure from the Jersey City Together and parents – and with support from City Hall – the BOE partnered with the municipal utilities authority to update water service lines, drinking fountains, and the plumbing at public schools citywide.
Work began at one school in 2019 followed by four schools in 2020 and nine schools total in 2021 and 2022. This year new equipment will be installed in at least 17 more schools. The district operates 43 schools, including early childhood education centers.
“Think of it,” said Jim Nelson, a leader of the Jersey City Together’s Education Team. “We went from bags over fountains…to the JCMUA and its (Jersey City) vendor Guarini Plumbing not only improving water systems but working with the school district to more than double the number of drinking fountain locations at certain schools.”
JCMUA Executive Director Joseph Cunha estimated that the agency has thus far spent $13.5 million for those improvements and for coordinating the testing of water samples by Tectonic Engineering Consultants. Test results are posted on the website of the New Jersey Department of Education.
According to Nelson, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tolerates a lead level of 15 parts per billion in water. One part per billion is the rough equivalent of one drop of water in a small swimming pool, he said.
Cunha said the JCMUA secured a 30-year loan to support the water improvement program, with the debt ultimately passed on to ratepayers. But, he added, “We may seek refinancing through the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank,” with the expectation of securing lower interest rates over a longer repayment period.
During the school year ending June 30, 2023, an estimated 8,000 students at a dozen schools gained access to new water fountains with an additional 2,000 students at five schools expected to see fixtures installed and water turned on within weeks, according to Jersey City Together.
Next on the agenda, according to Nelson and Fernandez, slated for similar improvements are: Schools 11, 20, 23, 24, 26 and 30; A. Harry Moore School, Lincoln High School’s grade 9 wing, Liberty High School, Renaissance Institute, Cunningham Early Childhood Center, Danforth Early Childhood Center, Infante Early Childhood Center, West Side Early Childhood Center, and Infinity Institute.
Fernandez said the BOE has set aside $250,000 in capital funds to “develop a scope of work” during late summer/early fall for the last remaining group of schools targeted for water upgrades and then solicit bids for the work.
She said she’s hoping that the BOE can award a contract for the improvements by this November and that work could start by early next year. The superintendent declined to project the cost for this final phase.
Fernandez said the age of a school building and condition of its water facilities, combined with the results of testing of water samples, will help determine the order in which work will proceed on these remaining schools.
After the job is completed, Fernandez said that school maintenance staff will be expected to monitor the new drinking fountains as part of a regular checklist to ensure they don’t fall into disrepair.
Because two thirds of the city schools are “ancient,” meaning “more than 100 years old,” Fernandez said, the district is always faced with the prospect of costly infrastructure renovations. So, she said she expects the BOE to dip into capital reserves for such things as roof repairs, new boilers, and possibly air quality upgrades.
Fernandez said the state Department of Education has consented to rescind more than $30 million in state school aid cuts which, she said, would be “put back into our capital fund” to help carry out essential building repairs.