K-12 School Buildings: Key to a Low Carbon Future

Posted on by KATE GORDON
Filed under: School Facilities
This blog is part of our series looking at the California policy implications for our new study, Going it Alone: Can California’s K-12 School Districts Adequately and Equitably Fund School Facilities?, which finds that more than half of school districts in the state underspend on their facilities, raising educational and health equity concerns. In Spring 2016, lawmakers in Sacramento will debate new state funding options for K-12 public school facilities. To inform this policy discussion, CC+S has invited guest commentary from prominent voices across the state.

As the holidays end and my kids gear up for a new semester, it’s turned my attention on a critical issue here in California: funding for schools. I’m not talking here about funding for teachers and books, which is of course critically important. Instead, I’m focused on the school buildings themselves, and the promise they hold as a key part of the low-carbon future.

School facilities funding is a bit of an orphan issue. The education community tends to focus more on operational budgets, while the climate and energy crowd usually champions solar installations over basic building maintenance.  But the fact is that bringing our school facilities up to basic standards of upkeep is essential to realize both our state’s education goals and our far-reaching climate goals. Solar cells on a school roof do no good if the roof isn’t weatherproofed. High efficiency HVAC won’t lower energy bills or our carbon footprint if the school’s windows are old, drafty and in disrepair.

In 2012 California voters passed Proposition 39, closing a corporate tax loophole and directing half the revenues to clean energy projects. The legislature later directed these funds toward the state’s public school system. (Full disclosure: I am the Chair of the Proposition 39 Citizen Oversight Board, which has no project approval authority, but does have to conduct an audit of the program for the state legislature.) The prime goal of the program: to lower carbon emissions and energy costs for California schools.

I worked closely on Prop 39 implementation, and was a strong advocate for the funding being targeted toward schools.  But when I looked further into the current state of California’s school facilities, I was shocked to learn how many K-12 school buildings across the state are in a terrible state of disrepair. Many of our schools depend on local bonds to conduct basic upgrades, and our research found that hundreds of California’s state’s schools are in areas that have not passed a local bond since 1980. Most of these schools are in rural and low-income parts of the state, meaning some of the California kids with the fewest opportunities are also those trying to learn in the most decrepit, and energy-hogging, school buildings.

A new study from Jeff Vincent and Liz Jain at Berkeley’s Center for Cities + Schools, Going it Alone: Can CA’s K-12 School Districts Adequately and Equitably Fund School Facilities?, provides a comprehensive and much-needed analysis of California’s school facilities gap. The report is sobering: nearly 40% of California’s school districts are failing to meet basic benchmarks for maintenance, operations, and capital renewals (the planned replacements of essential building systems, including HVAC and other energy systems). Forty percent! Put another way, almost 80% of California’s public school students are trying to study and learn in facilities that are severely under-funded. That’s not just a crisis for education; it’s a crisis for our state’s broad energy and climate goals. We have to do better.

Luckily, the Governor and the Legislature are reconvening in January 2016 to discuss school construction and modernization funding, among many other priorities. A $9 billion school bond is also on the ballot for November 2016, which should be (had better be!) a high turnout election.

My wish for this year: that as voters and our elected officials think about school funding, we marry these issues to our state’s far-reaching climate agenda, and come up with a better way to position our schools as part of the overall solution.

We have the opportunity to improve our students’ learning environments, increase teacher satisfaction, and save energy and scarce public dollars by doing energy upgrades on schools that actually meet basic maintenance standards.  And in so doing, we have the opportunity to make our schools leaders on the path to a lower-carbon, more sustainable economic future. I can’t see any downside in that!

Kate Gordon is the Vice Chair of Climate and Sustainable Urbanization for the Paulson Institute, and also the Chair of the Proposition 39 Citizen Oversight Board. All views here are her own.


CC Image courtesy of Jaspero on Flickr