In November, NY voters passed the $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, an omnibus spending package funded through state bonds.
The bond act includes $1.5 billion for climate change mitigation projects on state-owned buildings, including public schools, SUNY and CUNY campuses, and community colleges. According to the legislation, $500 million of that sum has been designated for the purchase or conversion to zero emission school buses.
“This $4.2 billion bill is the largest environmental bond act in state history, and we are confident it will drive significant energy upgrades at our schools. This funding will also improve indoor air quality, ventilation, and drinking water at schools across the state, making our schools healthier places to learn and grow,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta.
Administered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, applications are now being accepted for the Clean Green Schools initiative. Applications are open for the two tracks participating in this initiative: Track I provides funding to schools to conduct comprehensive energy audits and Track II provides schools with funding for construction projects and equipment that will decarbonize their buildings.
“First and foremost, this $4.2 billion piece of legislation is really a win for all New Yorkers, but in particular for kids who are looking to breathe clean air,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. Research has shown that air pollution can worsen asthma, and asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, she said.
“School environmental health in general has always gotten overshadowed by other things, but it’s always been a concern and it’s an important aspect to consider when trying to improve test scores and student performance,” said Michelle Herdt, research scientist at the New York State Department of Health and director of the New York State School Environmental Health Program.
Several school districts across the state were early adopters of green upgrades like the ones made possible by this new legislation – and they are already reaping the rewards of going green.
Joseph DeCarlo, a special education teacher at William Seward Elementary and member of the Auburn Teachers Association, launched a district-wide health and safety initiative in 2015 to make the Auburn Enlarged City School District a healthier place for his students and his fellow educators.
DeCarlo knew the district, which serves 4,164 students across seven schools, struggled with rodent issues, ventilation problems and temperature extremes. Located in rural Cayuga County near the Finger Lakes, Auburn is challenged by poverty, transience and low adult education levels.
DeCarlo said the first step was recruiting the right team members and building a network; he began with a labor-only committee and then established a committee that included both labor and management and comprised employees from every department. “We started with ourselves first,” DeCarlo said.
Then, with guidance from the NYS School Environmental Health Program, DeCarlo and his team conducted a full assessment of the school buildings and identified a starting point. “You need to survey your membership first. Let them tell you where to begin,” DeCarlo said.
For Auburn city schools, it was fixing indoor air quality issues, especially excessive heat in the classrooms. DeCarlo and his members kept temperature logs for two years; the data helped prompt the administration to incorporate HVAC upgrades into their four-year, $26 million capital improvement project, which commenced in 2019. The upgraded air system will also remove more harmful particulates from the air students breathe.
DeCarlo said input from members will be essential to making sure the Green Bond funding is spent effectively and that now is the time to organize. “We have to make sure that we have influence and voice over how that money is spent, and what is done with it,” he said.