Superintendent Carole Smith, in less leaden times.
Superintendent Carole Smith, in less leaden times. Portland Public Schools
The question for the angry crowd at Rose City Park school confronting embattled Portland Public School Superintendent Carole Smith Wednesday night comes down to: What did she know and when did she know it?

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As Smith tells it, elevated lead levels were found at least 47 school building and other facilities in her domain between 2010 and 2012—a detail first reported by Willamette Week—yet not a single principal or administrator thought that news alarming enough to reach out to some PPS higher-up, who then might alert Smith.

That was the party line last night: Knowledge of dozens of PPS buildings tainted by lead only rose so far, and no further. PPS says it will hire an independent investigator to unearth how a system was not in place to kick the news on up the chain.

If indeed that was the case. Willamette Week reported yesterday that PPS chief operating officer Tony Magliano received an email in October 2012 from Erin Barnett, of the district's communications office. Barnett wanted to talk about “warning labels on sinks in schools with high levels of lead.” That followed an earlier report from OPB about e-mails about lead within PPS.

At Rose City Park last night, fury stemmed from the revelations of PPS's botched, tardy response to lead in the water over the prior days. And it yielded such spectacles as state Senator Michael Dembrow facing down a grandfather concerned about his grandkids’ safety and insisting that Smith be handed the microphone to answer the question: “Why are you qualified to keep your job?”

The man kept asking, politely but insistently, for several minutes. Dembrow finally stepped forward to—literally and figuratively—shield Smith. The superintendent eventually rose from her seat to speak of her focus on student safety, her quest to understand how matters unfolded, and her determination that such would never occur again.

At meeting's end, seeking clarification on exactly how high up the PPS food-chain knowledge of the 2010 to 2012 lead readings had traveled, the Mercury was blocked from speaking to Smith by security guards as she scurried off down the hall and away.

Asked whether finding lead in 47 PPS buildings was a big deal, district spokesperson Christine Miles said, “Were we surprised? No. Is it alarming? Yes. We know we have old schools … and so it's unrealistic to say there'd be zero” elevated levels. “We had already planned to test levels this summer.”

Asked about what Smith knew—or should have known—Miles said, “It's not elevated to the superintendent's level unless it's a red flag.”

During the meeting, Smith declined to explicitly blame the principals. But hewing to a message she’s been repeating all week, she maintained that, according to the “communication protocols” then in place, “it came to my attention late in the game.”

Asked after the meeting who in PPS knew of the elevated lead found from 2010 to 2012, School Board chair Tom Koehler said, “That's why we're asking for an outside investigation. No one knows how far up the knowledge went.” Asked when parents might look for the report, Koehler would only say “as soon as possible.”

Periodically throughout the meeting, enraged parents erupted to shout down what they deemed slippery responses from the panel.

Joe Kurmaskie, who's oldest child recently graduated and has three younger children in PPS schools—plus his wife teaching in one—flat out called for Smith and Mogliano to declare on the spot whether they would remain or “apologize and resign.”

Demanding a yes-or-no answer, Kurmaskie was met by Koehler saying “We've asked for an independent review, and we'll then examine the facts and hold people accountable.” Not satisfied, Kurmaskie reiterated his demand until stared down by Dembrow.

Despite his almost physical defense of Smith during the question period, asked after the meeting who knew what, when, Dembrow said, “That's a really good question.” Asked his support of Smith, he said he was reserving judgment pending the independent report's conclusions.

School board member Paul Anthony has made no secret of his lack of support for Smith. Rather than a breakdown in communication that had news of elevated lead levels end at the schools’ principals, Anthony said it was an operations problem.

“We don't have effective systems,” he said. “We need someone with experience in management and operations to come in and clean house, then rehire some people and hire new staff.”

For his part, board member Steve Buel applauded the move to an independent investigation. He pointed out that on Tuesday, there was talk of Smith conducting it—in effect, investigating herself.

“We basically poisoned thousands of children,” Buel said. “It's such a big error.”

Asked about Smith's tenure, Buel said: “I haven't put forward a resolution to fire her yet. She's the superintendent for now.”

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As to PPS's potential legal liability, Buel said, “You better believe it's facing quite a bit of liability…. I wouldn't be surprised if it's not millions of dollars.” He said the district had to get some percentage of students tested, find out if any have elevated lead levels, and extrapolate from there.

Meanwhile, late last night, PPS issued notice of radon.

Daniel Forbes is the author of Derail This Train Wreck. He lives in Portland, and can be reached at ddanforbes@aol.com.