IN TIMES OF competing financial pressures and politics, sometimes a deadline can promote a little clarity. So permit us to suggest one:
By the opening day of schools this fall, every Baltimore school should have safe, potable water. Preferably running water, in the kitchens, fountains, bathrooms and classroom sinks. Water for cooking and drinking, free of the threat of lead contamination.
Without a doubt, it would require extraordinary leadership -- and investment -- to achieve this goal in barely four months after 10 years of negligence and buck-passing.
In fact, it might be asking enough to insist that the school system deliver an achievable water safety plan to its 90,000 families on the first day of school (new item on the back-to-school list: a box of paper cups?).
Asking the impossible? Without goals, projects drift and are overtaken by events, like the just-announced budget cuts and downsizing needed to offset a deep school system deficit into which the Deer Park water bill has poured. Every school is using bottled water until the contamination crisis is resolved.
So it would seem that establishing a deadline -- even a tentative one -- might be a logical step toward diverting streams of expertise and energy into a single flow.
Right now, the city Health Department is testing kids for lead exposure. The school system is pursuing a variety of solutions and funding sources, while a joint task force independently is examining options and preparing to make recommendations.
Also, the school system is moving to test the water at schools to determine the scope of the problem today (compared to 10 years ago, when the last tests revealed unsafe lead levels at fountains in many buildings). But the long-term solution remains elusive.
There's a push for buying water filtration systems, used currently in three city schools. But there are many questions about filtration, which may require continuing maintenance to operate at peak and keep water safe. And some health experts question whether filtration sufficiently protects against toxic lead, which impairs children's brains and nervous systems.
Then there's the alternative nobody wants to discuss: In fact, some might say replacing pipes and fixtures is doing it the right way. It's slow, disruptive and expensive, but it's permanent. At least one urban school system has had success by replacing thousands of fixtures over several years, according to the Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.
That city's children were worth it.
Why aren't ours?
Obviously, the physical walls aren't the only ones that would have to be knocked down to get the job done.
Whatever the proper course of action for Baltimore schools, this much is clear: We won't have safe water in every school until every level of government, from the school board to the city and state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, is working toward the same solution for Baltimore's children with all deliberate speed. One goal, one action plan.
Shall we say, by Labor Day?