POV: Turning green to gold: The Case for sustainable schools

POV: Turning green to gold: The Case for sustainable schools




The American Lung Association has reported that Suffolk County again received an “F” for air quality.  Our high ozone levels are shown to contribute to increases in asthma, pulmonary disease, heart attacks and even premature deaths.  Currently, 141,000 Long Islanders have asthma, 56,400 of which are children.  I should know.  My daughter is one of them.  Her condition led me down a path of education and advocacy focused on one question: how can we help Long lsland’s schools avoid being part of the problem when we could be part of the solution?

Long Island is the only suburb in the nation that has the population density of a city, which leads to numerous problems.  Traffic congestion constitutes a third of our greenhouse gas emissions on Long Island.  Rising levels of contaminants such as nitrates, volatile organic compounds, pesticides and pharmaceuticals are found in our aquifers, which serve as are our sole drinking water source. High-energy costs, high taxes and few good, local jobs have resulted in a millennial diaspora.  Our public schools are in decline.  According the U.S. Green Building Council,  we would need to spend an additional $542 billion on operations and maintenance in order for our schools to function in “good repair.” 

There is clear evidence that improving school sustainability is the path for a brighter future for Long Island. The Green Economy produced explosive job gains and outperformed the nation during the recession.  According to a report published by the Brookings Institute, 500,000 jobs were added to the Green Economy from 2003-2010, expanding at a rate of 3.4 percent. Research published by the U.S. Green Building Council on the health of green buildings is clear:  increased ventilation, temperature and lighting control have a significant, positive impact on worker productivity.  Students attending green schools have higher standardized test outcomes in math and reading.   

Success stories of sustainable schools abound.  New York City schools are leading the charge by requiring a sustainability coordinator be appointed in each school in order to drive sustainability initiatives. My home school district, Sayville, has taken advantage of Energy Performance Contracts that save taxpayers $310,000 annually, $6.5 million overall and reduce energy use by 30 percent. Some Long Island BOCES centers have begun training HVAC students on green technology.  The U.S. Green Building Council and the Green Schools Alliance are collaborating with schools to incorporate sustainability upgrades, curriculum and green-collar job training nationwide.   

My experience as a school board trustee taught me the importance of how strong governance and sound policy must drive sustainability.   We must elect government officials whose primary focus is our environment. I collaborated with Elaine DiMasi on this piece.  A scientist and aspirant for the U.S. Congress’ first district, Dr. DiMasi understands how a healthy environment leads to a stronger society and economy.  Brookhaven Town supervisor Ed Romaine has a great environmental record, as does Suffolk County legislator Al Krupski (D-Riverhead) of the North Fork, a student of plant science, a fourth generation farmer and stalwart critic of the open water dumping of toxic sludge.  Long Island’s NYS Assembly is chock full of green leaders, including my assemblyman Andrew Garbarino (R-Sayville), who serves on the state environmental committee.  NYS assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket) has long been a champion of the Pine Barrens and clean water; fellow Long Island NYS assemblywoman Christine Pellegrino (D- West Islip) joined Englebright in opposing drilling off Long Island’s shores. We need more leaders like DiMasi, Romaine, Krupski, Garbarino, Englebright and Pellegrino that are willing to support the green schools revolution.  

We need healthier, more efficient schools that improve student learning and produce green-collar jobs.  Long Island was a model of economic vitality after World War II. Spearheading the Green Revolution by connecting the environment to the social and economic value of our schools can enable us to lead once again.