Breaking news from the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: A Willamette Week report exposing high levels of lead in the drinking water of dozens of Portland public schools has been recognized by the Bruce Baer Awards, which honor the top investigative reporting in Oregon.
The stories selected for special recognition today were written last spring by WW reporter Rachel Monahan and former WW staffer Beth Slovic (now at the Portland Tribune). They detailed how Portland Public Schools compiled a database showing dangerously high levels of lead in the fountains and sinks of schools across the city—then tried to hide those results from teachers and parents.
Drawing on an earlier public records request Slovic submitted for lead testing records from all 90 PPS schools done between 2010 and 2012, Monahan published a story that blew open the story of lead in school drinking water.
WW's reporting provided an entirely new lens on what PPS had tried to portray as a minor problem isolated to two buildings.
In fact, as Monahan showed, the problem not only affected dozens of buildings, but also high-ranking district officials had known of the problem and done nothing.
The Bruce Baer Award has for 40 years recognized the best investigative reporting in the state. This year's first prize went to The Oregonian's Rob Davis for his series on lead in National Guard armories.
Here's how the Baer committee described its special recognition of WW:
“Failing the Test” was a four-part series written by Rachel Monahan and Beth Slovic of Willamette Week. Reports in multiple media sources detailed high levels of lead in two Southeast Portland elementary schools.
Willamette Week then drew on earlier tests that showed unsafe amounts of lead throughout the schools’ water system. Furthermore, Monahan and Slovic found that information about the tests for lead were not disclosed within the system. Ultimately, the mishandling of the tests and information led to the resignation of Superintendent Carole Smith.
Today's honor comes a week after WW was recognized as the top medium-sized newspaper in the Pacific Northwest.
WW took home the 2016 first prize for general excellence among medium-sized newspapers in five states, as part of the Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest run by the Society of Professional Journalists.
The award was one of 10 prizes WW won in the contest. Nigel Jaquiss won first prize in investigative reporting for "Roofless," his story on the high construction costs of city-subsidized affordable housing projects. Rachel Monahan won first prize in social issues reporting for "Kicked Out of Town," her examination of no-cause evictions.