ROCKVILLE – Despite its emphasis on sustainability and recycling, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) spent $415,000 on single-use water bottles during the 2018-2019 school year.
The district purchased 3 million eight-ounce bottles of water for use in the elementary schools and spent $515,000 for 16.9-ounce bottles for students in the upper grades.
When State Del. Al Carr (D-18) toured MCPS’s central food facilities on Sept. 4, he questioned the large amount of single-use water bottles piled up on palettes.
“We need to try and get kids in the habit of sustainability,” he said. “For me, it was just an eye-opener, and I will be asking more questions about it,” Carr said.
“I think we need to provide an alternative,” he said, adding, “The first step is for them to have clear drinking water available to (for) the kids either at fountains or filling stations.”
The school system is currently looking for ways to solve this issue. It added water fountains with bottle-refilling stations during all their new, revitalized and expansion school projects, according to MCPS’ Fiscal Year 2018 Environmental Sustainability Management Plan. It also has retrofitted some water fountains in existing schools and replacing older ones.
According to MCPS spokesman Derek Turner, all new construction has filling stations; 36 schools now have these stations.
According to a May 15, 2019, letter to the Montgomery County Board of Education from Superintendent Jack Smith, it would cost about $1.2 million to add two water bottle filling water stations at each school.
Former School Board Member Jill Ortman-Fouse worked to include $2 million in the current school budget for the purchase and installation of an average of two water bottle filling stations in all the public schools.
However, while her resolution passed the board of education unanimously, this funding did not make it into the final MCPS budget.
“The funding was cut from (the) County Exec’s budget, so the council never had the opportunity to vote on it,” she wrote in a recent Facebook post.
Board of Education Vice President Patricia O’Neill said schools are receiving new water fountains, but that single-use water bottles are needed because parents want water available at all times. An idea to place filled water pitchers on all the lunchroom tables was dismissed due to potential problems with spillage and breaking, she said.
While the number of water bottles may seem like a lot, O’Neill noted that MCPS “serves hundreds and thousands of meals” to its 164,000 students.
However, she added, “Absolutely, we are concerned” about energy conservation and sustainability. “That’s why we are adding refillable water systems.”
Turner added that it is always necessary “to buy bottled water even when the building has fountains and bottle filling stations.”Along with purchasing all the single-use water bottles so students can purchase or drink from, the school system’s “robust recycling program” helps with the disposal of the plastic bottles, he said.
“Water bottles are sold in the lunch line so if a student forgets or doesn’t own a reusable bottle, they don’t have to run to the water fountain throughout their limited lunch window,” Turner said.“Water bottles can also be used for field trips when students are away from the school building.”
In a Sept. 23 letter to Carr, Susan McCarron, director of Food and Nutrition Services at MCPS, noted that “As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a requirement was instituted that students have access to water at no charge where lunch meals are served.”
She noted that “in most instances,” this requirement was met by allowing students to use the water fountains.
However, she wrote, in the 2014-2015 school year, MCPS began serving an eight-ounce bottle of water to all students eligible for free and reduced meals.
Carr said that seeing all those single-use water bottles was “just an eye-opener, and I will be asking more questions.” He also said he intends to investigate “what can realistically be done and how could the state help.”
The issue also comes as MCPS has been lowering lead levels in its water following the water testing completed at all schools about a year ago.
As of March 1, 249 water fountains had lead levels above the accepted U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, which comes to almost 2 percent of the 13,570 outlets tested.