Water test is free of e. coli

School could turn on faucets tomorrow if next round of results contains no bacteria


School officials breathed a sigh of relief Friday morning when the first round of tests on North Harford Middle School's water supply came back negative for bacteria.

Another clean bill this weekend and the water could be turned back on tomorrow, finally weaning the school off of the bottled water and hand-washing stations pupils have been using since the school year began.

Now what's left is restoring the community's trust.

"They messed up," said state Sen. J. Robert Hooper, a Republican. "It was just a bunch of little things that - like Murphy's Law - did it. Nobody was checking tight enough."

Though the water was shut off in mid-August after contractors broke a sewage pipe during construction, parents and local politicians have been frustrated with communication efforts by school and health officials, who first notified parents by sending a letter home with children Sept. 12.

The letter - which school officials have acknowledged was misleading and ill-advised - warned that the water contained e. coli and would have to be boiled.

Late Thursday, 12 samples taken the day before from the Pylesville school's well water showed no traces of bacteria, and another round of tests were taken Friday. If both rounds come back clean, the school system can turn the water back on, said a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Principal Bruce Kovacs said Friday was the "best day he'd had all year."

"I'm reading this report and seeing `absent' next to all the things they tested for, and, wow, does it feel great," he said.

However, while children may not have been exposed to the water, parents spoke of a breach of trust at public meetings with school leaders over the past two weeks. That has led to sharper, more public criticism of other flaws at the school, including air-conditioning and sewage problems.

"As parents, we have reached our tolerance limits," parent Cindy Poper told the school board Monday. "The complete lack of information and communication with the NHMS community has exacerbated this latest issue at the middle school."

When the news broke, school officials backpedaled as they sorted through the situation. The county health officer, Andrew Bernstein, blamed local media for the hysteria when he appeared before the County Council, which doubles as the county health board.

And they were harshly criticized for trying to deflect blame. Hooper, County Council President Robert S. Wagner and Del. Joanne S. Parrott all had sharp words for the council after talking with parents and constituents.

School officials said they've made great strides since to communicate with the community. Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas stayed long after the council meeting to talk with parents. Tuesday, Haas and other school leaders participated in a question-and-answer session at North Harford High School. And the system has been posting regular updates on North Harford Middle's Web site, explaining the day-to-day efforts that were being made in addition to what to expect in the coming days.

"We understand the anxiety that parents and others in the community have felt," said schools spokesman Don Morrison. "We're looking at a month and a half since the first break occurred, and that's far too long for a situation that should have been resolved more quickly."

"If we didn't learn anything from this, we're dumber than hell," said school board member Robert B. Thomas.

Kovacs had high praise for his staff, who have been lugging 60 5-gallon jugs of bottled water into the school each day for the past two weeks. That's 3,600 pounds of water a day, he said, at a cost of $1,100 a week.

"They've been terrific, and their reward now is that it's over and we'll return to normal," Kovacs said.


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