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3/21/2023 Rhode Island unions, environmental advocates and community advocates support bill calling for net-zero public schools by 2035
The Climate Jobs Rhode Island coalition calls for passage of legislation to decarbonize all Rhode Island public school buildings, while creating thousands of union jobs and saving school districts money
STATE HOUSE—Today Climate Jobs Rhode Island (CJRI), a growing coalition of over 30 labor unions, environmental organizations and community groups gathered in the Rhode Island State House Library for a press conference to relaunch its Green and Healthy Schools campaign, an initiative calling for the decarbonization of all public K-12 school buildings 2035 using strong labor and equity standards.

The campaign is calling for the passage of legislation that will motivate investments to safeguard our future by securing net-zero school buildings for all students, teachers, and school staff to learn and work in a healthy, safe, environment, equipped for 21st century learning. 

This legislation (2023-H 6008, 2023-S 0537) has been introduced by Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston) in the House of Representatives and Senate Majority Leader Ryan Pearson (D-Dist. 19, Cumberland, Lincoln) in the Senate. The core components of the legislation include: a mandate for all K-12 public schools to create a pathway to net-zero energy by 2035, the addition of two reimbursement incentives for energy efficiency retrofits and renewable energy  improvements, and strong labor standards and apprenticeship utilization on all school construction projects. 

The bill also includes the addition of one full-time employee at the Rhode Island Department of Education who will serve as an energy modeler for school districts, direction for districts to leverage federal funding opportunities coming out of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, and enables school districts to pursue additional sources of funding without a reduction in their school housing aid reimbursement.

“Children are the generation most impacted by the actions we take to prevent global warming. As we work to address climate change, making sure their school environments are safe, healthy and sustainable should be a top priority. Getting our schools on a path to net zero will be a big step forward in providing them with the environment they deserve in the present as well as the future,” says Representative Handy.

The coalition says that decarbonizing public school buildings will save school districts millions of dollars in energy costs, create pathways to good union jobs in local communities, and slash carbon emissions so Rhode Island can successfully meet the 2030 and 2040 benchmarks outlined in the Act on Climate. According to research done by the Worker Institute at Cornell University, decarbonizing every public school in Rhode Island will slash 105,913 metric tons of CO2-eq emissions, while creating over 11,209 direct jobs over a total of nine years. 

Statewide, school districts spend up to $35.2 million on school energy costs for electric, natural gas, and heating oil. The coalition says investing in energy efficiency retrofits, solar on schools, and other critical climate upgrades will save districts millions of dollars that can be reinvested in learning.

The coalition's message is that it’s time to fully transition our schools into the clean energy future with good, skilled union jobs. An investment in our children and our workers is an investment in our communities. Putting Rhode Island on the path to green and healthy schools with strong labor standards allows us to combat climate change, keep our school communities safe, improve learning outcomes, keep money in our communities, and create thousands of good union jobs.

The coalition released a petition calling on Governor Dan McKee and members of the Rhode Island General Assembly to invest in green and healthy school buildings throughout the state, and pass 2023-H 6008 and its 2023-S 0537. The coalition is inviting all Rhode Island residents and community organizations to sign on. 

“Decarbonization will save school districts millions of dollars in energy costs and critical pathways to good union jobs in the process. It is time to truly invest in our kids by rebuilding our schools for the future. Every public school building should be equipped with solar panels and energy efficiency retrofits. We can make climate-safe school buildings with the strongest labor and equity stands in the country, lifting Rhode Island up and showing ourselves to be national leaders,” says Pat Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island.

 “Climate change affects all of us but it has had especially negative and long-lasting impacts on low-income and communities of color. Our public schools are outdated and negatively impacting our health and the environment around us. While the average age of Rhode Island school buildings hovers around a half-century, the districts in our urban core have some of the poorest conditions and greatest deficiencies; six of Providence’s middle schools, for example, average 90 years old. Prioritizing investments in our schools located in frontline communities is a matter of justice. These communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of decades of disinvestment. Building green and healthy schools, especially in communities that are on the frontline of climate change, can protect us against the climate crisis,” says Priscilla De La Cruz, senior director of government affairs of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island.

“We built the country’s first fully operational offshore wind farm, on Block Island. That project put hundreds of our hard-working union members to work and paved the way for the rest of the country to invest in offshore wind. We can continue to be national leaders. Transitioning all K-12 public schools to net-zero emission with strong labor and equity standards will create over 11,000 jobs over the next decade. Decarbonizing out schools will save the districts millions of dollars, create pathways to good union jobs, and lift up our communities. These investments will impact generations of Rhode Islanders and can have ripple effects across the country,” says Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council.

“It is indisputable that the learning environments in our schools have a direct impact on the success of our students. To understand this fact and to be aware of the disgraceful condition of so many of our public-school facilities, is a blatant act of negligence. Expecting the future drivers of Rhode Island’s economy to advance their knowledge in classrooms that are overcrowded, piping hot or ice cold, and quite literally crumbling around them is nonsensical. Passage of the Green and Healthy Schools bill is a smart investment for not only our educational facilities and its occupants but for the only real home we all share, Mother Earth,” says Joseph L. Walsh Jr., business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 99. 
“We cannot delay our action to ensure the health and safety of every student, educator and all individuals who work and occupy our public-school buildings. Issues of poor ventilation, crumbling ceilings, mold, and rotted pipes are unacceptable and pose major physical risks and significant health impacts for the entire school community. Through supporting the Green and Healthy Schools initiative, we can make necessary and long-overdue infrastructural improvements to our school facilities, save school districts thousands of dollars on energy costs, and reinvest that money into education,” says Mary K. Barden, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island (NEARI).

“We are making decisions in our building practices that are both economically and environmentally responsible. We would be foolish to build in any other way,” says Dave Caldwell, vice president of Caldwell & Johnson Custom Builders & Remodelers.

“The most resilient buildings are the healthiest ones. As we modernize our K-12 schools, it is an opportunity to equitably invest in strategies that promote focus, cognitive function, test scores, as well as reduce asthma cases, seasonal flu, and chronic absenteeism. Health-based improvements to ventilation, acoustics, windows, and roofs can have positive impacts on our children’s health for decades to come,” says Dr. Erika Eitland, MPH ScD, public health scientist and co-director of the Human Experience Lab, Perkins & Will.

For more information, contact:
Meredyth R. Whitty, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 222-1923