Lisa M. Randall
At the start of school year 2010-2011, Santa Fe Public Schools began building its Energy and Water Conservation program. Using ideas and models from other school districts and organizations around the country and customizing strategies to meet our own specific building portfolio, we focused on electricity and natural gas in year one and water, waste and recycling in year two. All of those areas continue to be at the forefront, and we’ve added food-waste composting, renewable-energy infrastructure, cradle-to-grave zero-waste electronics diversion and more sustainable building design. Becoming an environmentally responsible organization is an ever-evolving goal and arguably a very high priority.
With the constantly increasing price of utilities paid out of the annual operational budget, 86 percent of which goes to employees and their salaries and benefits, we knew that spending less on energy, water and refuse could mean spending more in the classroom. SFPS’s conservation program was born out of the 2008 crash and subsequent recession and several years of cutting millions out of the operational budget. As many are aware, the annual budget is funded by the state of New Mexico, using a formula called the State Equalization Guarantee, or SEG. Individual students and their particular educational needs and grouping beget “unit values” of funding, and this funding basically determines our budget. Allotments are given for expenses like utilities within this SEG funding, so minimizing use and expenditures on utilities not only has a positive environmental impact but a positive effect on teaching and learning.
Since our conservation efforts began in fiscal year 2011, we’ve reduced our electrical usage by 11 percent, natural gas usage by 23 percent and water usage by 43 percent. As can be imagined, 14,000 students and nearly 2,000 employees create a lot of demand for resources and, in turn, are a powerful force for change. SFPS chose to focus on the built environment first in our initial resource-reduction efforts. We wanted to walk our talk and lead by example, rather than put the burden of change on the shoulders of our already extremely hard-working staff. In conjunction with the many building retrofits and upgrades, we now have “sleep-mode” expectations for all staff, asking them to unplug, power-down and turn off everything possible whenever possible. While we encourage participation and strive to make it easy to comply with conservation expectations, much of the behavioral change is a matter of consciousness and, mirroring the rest of the planet, there are varying levels of commitment across the district.
Waste diversion and redefining our waste have been areas of much-needed change. When I began as Energy and Water Conservation program coordinator in August 2010, our recycling rate was a dismal 6.7 percent, and there was no district point-person to educate and provide coordination. As of March 2015, our recycling rate is 26 percent, we’ve reduced our waste-to-landfill by 30 percent, and we divert nearly 1,700 pounds daily of cafeteria food waste to commercial composting rather than the landfill. Twelve of our 28 school sites now collect daily food waste, and our composting partner, Reunity Resources, transports that waste to Payne’s Nursery’s commercial composting operation. We also recycle metal from broken furniture, cardboard from technology and furniture installations and use the only R2-certified, zero-waste-to-landfill electronics recycler in the state, Albuquerque Recycling.
The first few years, we implemented projects and changes that would reduce waste, no matter what the resource was. We now look from conservation to generation and, to date, have installed nearly half a megawatt (MW) of solar PV (photovoltaics) on eight different school campuses. Gonzales, Santa Fe High, El Dorado, Amy Biehl, Capital High, Nina Otero, El Camino Real, and Piñón all have grid-tied solar PV arrays on site, and we’ll be adding arrays at Acequia Madre and Atalaya in the late summer. Another 1.2 MW solar PV package is in design now for Santa Fe High, Ortiz, Ramírez Thomas, and César Chávez, which we hope will be funded through Qualified School Construction Bonds and Clean Energy Revenue Bonds. This funding combination, if approved, could be the first of its kind in the state, with the energy savings paying for the monthly debt on the solar installations and no added burden on the taxpayer. We will continue to seek creative ways to fund both conservation and generation projects as fiscal resources become tighter and more in demand.
Other than individual teacher- or school-based environmental or sustainability projects, embedding this curriculum into the everyday lives of our students is still a critical missing link in the program. We have developed the job expectations for a Sustainability Programs coordinator and are currently seeking outside funding for this position because teaching our students real-world skills and strategies to respond to and mitigate climate disruption is crucial for them to be prepared for the challenges they face. Offering our staff meaningful and authentic professional development to help empower our students to develop innovative and relevant responses to very real climate challenges is not mandated at the federal, state or local level, so it is up to us to integrate environmental literacy into our classrooms, projects and organizational systems. We have many partners already assisting us in this endeavor and many ready to come on board as soon as we open the door. There is no higher moral imperative in my eyes, no greater social-justice issue, than supporting our students in efforts to address real-world environmental challenges and steering our Santa Fe Public School District toward a carbon- and water-neutral reality. The time has come, and there is much work for us to do, both individually and collectively.
Lisa Randall is the Energy and Water Conservation program coordinator for Santa Fe Public Schools. She manages the district’s conservation program, renewable-energy projects and recycling and waste-diversion programs. firstname.lastname@example.org