A video from The Trust for Public Land shows an outdoor thermometer climbing to 120 degrees as it’s held above the slide at a schoolyard under the BART tracks in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. The students talk about how they get burned when they sit on the slide and don’t want to go outside because it’s too bright.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If California is serious about meeting its carbon reduction goals, our K-12 schools must be viewed as partners in this critical work. The California Air Resources Board, or CARB, can help by dedicating California Climate Investments funds from the Cap and Trade program to making our schools more resilient to challenges like extreme heat.
Since 2013, more than 20 state agencies have appropriated nearly $12 billion from Cap and Trade to a range of projects across the state.
While a small amount of this funding has gone to K-12 schools, there is no intentional strategy beyond electric school buses that ensures schools have the technical and financial resources to shore up their buildings and grounds to combat climate change. To access these funds, districts must prepare separate grant applications to the plethora of programs being operated through these state agencies.
During the many years I have worked with local governments on California’s energy and environment policies, including 12 years on the Oakland Unified school board, I have seen how the patchwork approach to allocating funds disadvantages school districts. Most districts do not have the technical expertise and staff resources to track and apply for these grants.
As the Air Resources Board contemplates how to design the fourth three-year investment plan, it should set funds aside specifically for K-12 schools. California should direct funds to two high-impact initiatives that can help public schools be more resilient to our changing climate.
- Solar energy with battery storage. Prior to the pandemic, students had lost millions of school days due to wildfires and public safety power shutoffs, both of which are exacerbated by extreme heat. Ensuring schools can stay open allows parents to go to work and supports clean energy goals. Some people want schools to be designated as community resource centers when there is a disaster, a function they can only fulfill if they have electricity.
- Green schoolyards. The yards at most schools are almost entirely asphalt. Converting school grounds into parklike spaces improves children’s well-being, learning and play. It lowers the temperature in the yard while creating sinks for carbon. School gardens teach kids how to grow their own food. Green schoolyards can replenish the groundwater table by capturing runoff rather than sending it through the stormwater system. Schools can be an important part of the state’s strategy to use working lands to combat climate impacts.
In Oakland, we were fortunate that two nonprofit organizations took the lead on pursuing grants for green schoolyard projects at a handful of schools in neighborhoods that are considered “disadvantaged” under the CalEnviroScreen tool. Their success has led to an ongoing partnership with the school district and a commitment to developing a districtwide green schoolyard master plan.
But most districts do not have the staff to pursue grants for solar energy, green schoolyards and similar initiatives or a member of their school board who works professionally on these issues and can provide guidance and help forge such connections. That does not mean there is not a keen interest in California’s schools in being part of the solution to addressing climate change.
The California Air Resources Board has a golden opportunity to help California’s schools become more resilient to the impacts of extreme heat, drought, rising sea levels and wildfires. The new climate investment plan should establish a fund that allows all schools to model for the next generation how to be good stewards of the environment.
Jody London served on the Oakland Unified School District board from 2009-2020. She has worked on climate issues since the mid-1980s, and since 2016 has been the sustainability coordinator for a Bay Area local government.
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