In response to outcry from various organizations, Montana's Department of Public Health and Human Services will extend the public comment period on a variety of proposed changes to school health rules, including a proposal to require schools to regularly test their water for lead.
At a public meeting Thursday, mediator Robert Lishman, an attorney for DPHHS, said the department decided to extend the comment period after receiving multiple letters from school organizations. He did not say how long the period would be extended or who would make that decision.
The changes, which also include new tobacco signage in schools, could come with a high cost for many of Montana's aging or rural schools.
Montana's Office of Public Instruction opposed the proposal because of the administrative process used, rather than the actual changes. Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen and Health Enhancement and Safety Administrator Tracy Moseman both expressed their frustration with DPHHS and how the rule-making process was handled.
According to OPI, neither its office nor any other school organizations were involved in drafting these rules. BJ Biskupiak, DPHHS school health and asthma program manager, said the committee included DPHHS, the Department of Environmental Quality, county health officials and an Environmental Protection Agency representative.
"To begin, the review of the June 2019 version of the new rules and rule amendments appears to be different from the August 2018 version submitted to our office," Moseman said. "Our review of the new document highlights the need for detailed and specific training and technical assistance for schools on a variety of topics including, but not limited to, the Chemical Hygiene Plan, playground inspections, ventilation system inspections and water testing."
Moseman asked where the responsibilities would fall and just how much technical assistance schools would receive. Arntzen also questioned why the hearing for these rules was being held in the summer, while superintendents and various other school officials were out or on vacation.
OPI said it first received notice of the changes and the public hearing just a few weeks prior, on June 21. They specifically asked for the comment period to be extended until Sept. 30, about a month after the start of the 2019-20 school year.
Biskupiak said the rules were repeatedly reviewed during bi-monthly Children's Environmental Health Network meetings hosted by the EPA. He said invitations to these meetings "were sent to a variety of partners including representatives for the Montana School Boards Association, the Office of Public Instruction, the DEQ, DPHHS and various county health departments."
OPI spokesperson Dylan Klapmeier said the issue is that the emails were sent to staffers in various departments of OPI rather than directly to OPI's leadership team. He said that at these meetings, the rules were seldom discussed in any meaningful way.
The rules state that DEQ will pursue grant funding for lead testing and pipe remediation via the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act Grant Program, as administered by the EPA. DPHHS does not believe chemical storage, ventilation or signage will have a fiscal impact on schools. OPI strongly disagrees.
Klapmeier said much of the fiscal impact will still be on school budgets and noted that Montana typically doesn't perform well in impact-based grants like WIIN due to its low population. He said the goals of the rules are admirable and that "we all want to protect student health, but it has to be done in a realistic manner."
OPI was also joined by representatives of the Montana Rural Education Association and the Montana Quality Education Coalition, who acted as material witnesses.