Nashville public schools official who tried to get out of providing lead filters resigns

Posted at 10:30 AM, Mar 19, 2018

A public school administrator in Nashville has resigned following the disclosure of a secret recording where he plotted to bypass filters designed to protect children from exposure to lead in their water.

Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) executive director of facilities Dennis Neal, resigned Friday, according to MNPS communications director Olivia Brown. Neal had been placed on administrative leave while the district investigated.

Neal's resignation came less than a week after Scripps station WTVF in Nashville uncovered the recording from inside a meeting of schools maintenance employees.

Recording Reveals Plan To 'Bypass' Lead Filter

For the past nine months, WVTF has exposed data kept secret by the district showing high lead levels in some Metro schools. Lead is a toxic metal that can cause learning and behavioral problems in children.

In response, a number of schools installed special fountains that were supposed to filter out the lead. Some of them were purchased by parents themselves.

But the recording revealed Neal's plan to dismantle those efforts.

Listen to the audio below:

"People keep wanting these bottle fillers, but they are adamant about them being filtered," Neal told his employees. "I'm saying we cannot support it.

From the beginning, Neal downplayed the threat posed by lead in the schools' drinking water  -- despite results showing levels well above what pediatricians say is safe.

 Audio Sparks Outrage, Mayor Calls For Answer

Still, some 30 schools installed hydration stations specifically designed to filter out the lead — some of them purchased by the parents themselves.

On the recording, Neal revealed: "I did ask Troy if he would have one of his guys go through the exercise of bypassing the filter just to see how that works."

But those fountains are equipped with lights that show when the filters are working and when they need to be replaced.

So Neal's team came up with a solution for that, too.

"We've got to figure out what we are going to do with these hundred, or 97, filtered ones that we have out there," Neal told his subordinates. 

An unidentified woman interrupted, "Bust the light out."

"Huh, do what?" Neal asked.

"Take the light bulb out," she answered.

"Well, that's one thing," Neal agreed. "But we need to also probably, if we can, bypass the filter."

Neal's concern was money.

MNPS Spokesperson Questions Need For Filters

"If we were to replace a filter, you're talking — I don't know if any of y'all have bought them  — it's something like 70 or 80 bucks," Neal said.

An unidentified man responded, "$75."

Neal said, "That's almost $8,000 a year just for filters, OK, on what we have now."

After disclosure of the record, Schools Director Dr. Shawn Joseph condemned the comments captured on the recording.

"As a parent of two Metro Schools children and as the Director of Schools, the idea that a supervisor would discuss a workaround on our water fountains knowing that this is a huge concern for many families is upsetting and unacceptable," Joseph said.

Nashville Mayor David Briley also said that "obviously, if the report is true, that person shouldn't  be responsible for protecting our children from lead in their drinking water."