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Article in Real Change News

Community & Editorial – February 9, 20100

Seattle Schools Should Save Green by Going Green

By Joe Szwaja

Seattle’s schools are in a financial fix. We’re $40 million in debt, closing schools, cutting teachers and precious programs. The budget situation in Olympia makes the picture bleaker still. There are deep cuts on the horizon, including education.

How can we plug the financial leaks that siphon dollars from our schools, our communities and kids? A start is to plug the literal leaks in our school buildings and save green by going green. Our schools’ energy practices don’t make sense; gym and auditorium lights left on late, power strips left on over holiday breaks, huge gaps in doors and windows. This waste costs us millions each year and hurts our environment by creating unnecessary emissions and power demand. At a time of budgetary and ecological crisis this goes against common sense.

Fortunately, there’s a common sense plan to start saving much-needed dollars for our kids by plugging our schools’ building leaks. It was devised by the Sustainable Schools Coalition, a grassroots citizens’ alliance made up of neighborhood, business and conservation groups, the Green Party of Seattle, as well as teachers and students. Our plan builds on small, successful conservation efforts the district has already undertaken. The school district has only three conservation staff, but they’ve provided over $2 million in net savings the last four years by coordinating volunteer efforts. Yet since no one at the local school level is charged with conservation, there is little incentive to expand these largely volunteer efforts. So we continue to waste money and energy.

Our coalition’s proposals would solve this problem by reinvesting under 2 percent of the net savings already achieved through conservation efforts. We are asking for just $30,000 to start a new program to save even more dollars and energy. Our proposal would achieve these savings by calling on individual schools to choose a “conservation coach” who would receive a small stipend to develop and implement a plan to save dollars and emissions at their own school building site.

Each coach (a custodian, teacher or other staff) would work with knowledgeable conservation groups and a staff/student Green Team at their local school to develop the plan. This could include simple steps such as turning off power strips and lights, installing motion sensors, insulating and weather stripping, starting a composting program or other resource saving efforts, depending on the school. The plan and stipends would provide what’s been sorely lacking at the local school level — accountability and incentives.

We have good reason to believe the plan would achieve significant dollar and energy savings. At Nova High School, where I teach, we have ranked first among Seattle Schools in terms of conservation over the last three years. Our efforts, purely voluntary by a few teachers and students, have reduced electricity usage by 25 percent, saving the district thousands of dollars each year. If we can do this with a few volunteer hours per month, imagine what more can be achieved by building in a few incentives.

Our citizens’ plan is supported by the few district staff charged with energy conservation and much of the Seattle School Board. Yet there’s a stall: the district’s chief financial officer is reluctant to spend any money on conservation in a tight budget time. Let’s remind him and the school board that we’ve already saved millions through very modest, mostly voluntary conservation efforts. Indeed, the Environmental Services Division is the rare department that has actually saved money for our schools. Putting no one in charge of such a basic thing as resource conservation in individual schools is the kind of short-sighted thinking that got us into our budget and environmental crises to begin with. The remedy: the School Board needs a push from tax payers to reinvest a little now in order to generate big savings for our schools and our earth in the years to come.

So take a minute to speak up for saving our schools and our environment. Call your Seattle School Director at 252-0040 or email them at pjoakes@seattleschools.org. Tell them that they should reinvest a small amount of our conservation dividends to save even more money and energy, and help save our planet via conservation coaches in our local schools. In order to solve our school budget and environmental crises we need to build in incentives and accountability. Providing small incentives to our custodians and teachers to save green by acting green is a good start.