OPINION: Why school boards can and must be leaders in tackling climate change

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When I first ran for school board in 2017, I was concerned about climate change personally but honestly didn’t understand what role I could play as a school board member.

Once elected, I realized that our school district — like most school districts — is one of the largest landowners, real estate developers, transportation providers and employers in our community. This gives me — and school board members across the country — tremendous influence to lead positive change for climate action and climate justice.

But making large changes to public infrastructure is difficult. For example, it took my school district about five years to purchase one electric bus.

Yet I know we can act with urgency when needed: During the pandemic, I watched as we mobilized massive change over days and weeks.

With the latest international climate change report stating that we only have a few years before we reach a disaster tipping point, we must act with urgency from the position of power we have.

I know we can act with urgency when needed: During the pandemic, I watched as we mobilized massive change over days and weeks.

The confluence of many school districts’ aging infrastructure and the need to become more resilient to the negative effects of climate change has motivated school boards to become more innovative and knowledgeable about building, replacing and remodeling. That includes everything from updating heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems, to electrifying school bus fleets, to insisting on sustainable packaging for the goods we purchase.

We have an opportunity like no other time in history to help reshape an educational environment so that it encompasses clean water and healthy air as well as job opportunities and safe places to work, live and play.

We also have a responsibility to ensure those improvements happen equitably and don’t perpetuate the climate injustice that already plagues our nation’s cities.

As co-founders and co-CEOs of School Board Partners, Ethan Ashley and I have had the privilege of working with school boards that are doing amazing work to tackle the challenges ahead of us.

Related: COLUMN: How student school board members are driving climate action

School boards in Prince George’s County, Maryland; Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Arlington, Massachusetts, to name a few, are examples of school boards with a 21st-century vision for their systems — and they have shared and built those visions with their communities. Their work is highlighted on UndauntedK12’s website.

Engaging communities and making them partners in climate change efforts is a common thread among school systems finding ways to move forward expeditiously.

And we must act with speed. We are already seeing the effects of climate change. Your world can change in an instant, given the uptick in historic weather events and natural disasters. Every school district is one wildfire, one tornado, one flood away from having to rebuild.

The Inflation Reduction Act dedicates about $370 billion to fighting climate change and creates historic opportunities for schools to make the clean energy transition. With tax credits that can reduce costs by 30 to 50 percent for such infrastructure updates as heat pumps, solar panel installation and battery storage, the time is ripe to make bold investments.

Agile districts are moving forward with the idea that no new school or district building should be built or renovated without ensuring that it is constructed and refurbished using environmentally sound materials and efficient use of energy, water and other resources. Existing building upgrades can be done using sustainable building criteria for everything from major improvements to simple maintenance orders.

Other ideas gaining traction include transforming schools into independent power producers by investing in clean renewable technologies such as solar and wind and setting ambitious goals such as utilizing 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2040 for all transportation — highly plausible and practical given that costs certainly will be coming down for electric vehicles over the next decade.

Related: One state mandates teaching climate change in almost all subjects – even PE

That doesn’t mean these changes will be easy or easily affordable. Trade-offs will have to be made, and investing in the future rather than the present is especially difficult when you’re talking about kids you are trying to serve well now.

However, we must remember that reducing our carbon footprint will lead to healthier buildings and transportation, cleaner air, healthier food, less waste and operational cost savings. All of this will help districts focus their limited resources more equitably and contribute to better health outcomes and a safer future for our children.

I will never forget a group of students who came to speak at our board meeting a few years ago. One young woman looked up at us on the dais and with tears in her eyes passionately pleaded: “This is our future, and yet we don’t have any power. You have power, please use it.”

Children spend more of their waking hours away from home at school than anywhere else. We must provide an environment conducive to their well-being — now and in the future. We can only do so by understanding and embracing the enormous challenge we face in addressing climate change and all of its components.

The world is changing fast, and we cannot stand still.

Carrie Douglass is the co-founder and co-CEO of School Board Partners, which supports and trains school board members. She is a twice-elected school board member and past board chair. She has worked as a teacher, school leader, district administrator and nonprofit leader.

This story about school boards and climate change was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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