SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER EDITORIAL BOARD
In an era of rising academic standards, there is no more fundamental responsibility than moving up today’s very low bar for the health and safety of school children, teachers and staff. The upcoming legislative session will be a make-or-break opportunity for intelligent decisions in favor of healthy schools.
Legislators must use a school finance reform study to guarantee districts put money into schools’ environmental health and buildings, science lab and playground safety. Otherwise, students, their families and teachers will continue to face large, avoidable costs in illness, injury and, in some cases, disability.
The state Board of Health has been engaged in a long, thoughtful exploration of everything from lead-contaminated school water to toxic mold in buildings. Its work documents that the costs of safer conditions would be repaid many times over in reduced health expenditures, not to mention improved academic performance. For instance, in a state with high asthma rates, improvements in indoor air quality would translate into big savings on asthma treatment.
Yet, the prospect of any expenses has caused such concern among some educators that the board has stopped short of adopting a new safety and health rule until June while legislators look at financial issues. The board should strengthen its rule on mold notifications to parents and move ahead in June, with or without funding answers.
But lawmakers have creative options. Mark Cooper, who helped raise water quality concerns in Seattle Public Schools, says a new school finance package could guarantee a share of school budgets, based on 2 percent of building replacement costs, go to maintenance. Cooper also suggests letting districts with voter-approved funds for construction divert some of the money to overcome huge maintenance backlogs. He thinks that creating a three-person state Department of Health response team for indoor air-quality problems could do a lot for schools while protecting the general public immensely during flood recoveries.
Health board documents show members have agonized over the human health toll from lead poisoning, chemical exposures, mold and other problems. Members also understand the hard budget choices forced on schools. Legislators and Gov. Chris Gregoire must provide the vision to protect health in schools without wrecking education budgets or running up taxpayer costs.