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Boston weighs plan to ensure safe drinking water in schools

The Boston School Committee voted Wednesday to delay action on a plan to fast-track efforts to make tap water drinkable at city schools, days after it was announced that unsafe levels of lead were found in water fountains in four buildings.

Under the proposal, the school district would retrofit plumbing in all schools deemed feasible by 2025.

Most city schools have used bottled water for nearly three decades rather than tap water because of concern about lead levels.

At the request of the committee, and under pressure from parents and teachers, School Department officials will revise the proposed policy to include more detail and guarantee that all water fountains in use would be tested annually.

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Kim Rice, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, and Jill Carter, its executive director of health and wellness, told the committee they would include directions on notification of parents, teachers, and the community and making public the full results of all water quality testing.

The decision followed impassioned testimony by Melanie Allen, a teacher at the Rafael Hernandez K-8 School in Roxbury, who told the committee that the policy was incomplete as written.

Allen said teachers were given no warning last week when the district notified parents that fountains at the Hernandez School and Thomas J. Kenny Elementary School in Dorchester tested above the state environmental protection department’s recommended lead level of 15 parts per billion.

Allen was concerned, she said, because one of the fountains with higher lead content is right outside her classroom, and a hormonal condition during her pregnancy caused her to drink tremendous amounts of water.

“Now I will never know if exposure to lead in the first trimester was a contributing factor to my son’s autism,” she said through tears.

Following the district’s announcements about the Hernandez and Kenny schools, on Monday, the district said fountains at Boston Latin Academy and the Richard J. Murphy K-8 School in Dorchester were also found to have unsafe lead levels.

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At all four schools, fountains found to have elevated levels of lead in the water were shut down, and students were given increased access to bottled water. On Tuesday, state officials announced that they were earmarking $2 million to test for lead in drinking water at public schools statewide.

Mary Battenfeld, a member of the Citywide Parent Council, delivered a statement to the School Committee Wednesday with a list of demands for testing water, notifying parents, and providing safe, bottled water. At the urging of committee member Miren Uriarte, Rice and Carter said they would review the list as they refine the policy.

The lead findings in Boston Schools came as the district tested water quality at 38 schools with functioning water fountains. About 90 other district schools use only bottled water for drinking. Most have done so since the schools’ fountains were shut down in 1988 after tests showed elevated lead levels.

Last summer, the district launched a pilot program to repair old plumbing and install new fountains. It made the upgrades at six schools, with costs ranging from $36,000 to $85,000 per school and totaling just under $300,000.

But subsequent tests of water at those buildings found elevated lead levels in nine of 36 samples. The fountains have not been used.

The district expects to spend $415,000 this school year to provide bottled water to keep children safe from lead.

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Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.