Whether it’s stormwater catchment, cafeteria food-waste composting, solar photovoltaics (PV), energy and water monitoring dashboards, or the ongoing energy and water conservation efforts at our 33 properties, Santa Fe Public Schools is proud to be a part of the mayor’s Climate Action Task Force efforts. Building community resiliency to current and future climate challenges is everyone’s responsibility, and as one of the area’s largest employers and resource consumers, SFPS is committed to becoming a strong partner in efforts to increase awareness and action.
Since beginning our conservation work in 2010, we’ve been able to consistently decrease usage of water, natural gas and electricity, even when increasing our building footprint. With 28 schools and five support facilities within the city and county, we have countless opportunities to focus on conservation and more sustainable behavior. Choosing what is right instead of what is easy should be our governing principle as a school district and as a collection of individuals. My constant challenge is moving us beyond ideas into the realm of practical application, while attempting to evaluate what’s the most effective and efficient use of limited capital dollars for the highest good.
A great example of this is our 25,000-gallon underground water catchment tank at Atalaya Elementary—a system collecting stormwater from the rooftop, programmed to feed the landscape with captured water first, and using potable only when necessary. I’m excited to say that with this system and our above-average rains, Atalaya has not used a drop of potable water this irrigation season for its landscaping. Paid for with Capital Outlay dollars from the 2014 Legislature, and installed during the recent remodel, this project is an excellent model of collaboration that benefits the whole community.
Using 2009 and 2013 General Obligation Bond funding specifically designated for energy and water conservation, SFPS has installed a half-megawatt of solar PV on eight schools in the district. Approximately $35 million would allow us to generate 100 percent of what we currently use, but storage for nonproduction times and needed ground space for installations requires serious consideration. Along with solar PV should come a deeper commitment to sustainable building design informing all future SFPS construction projects, as energy generation without evaluating the efficiency of a structure is irresponsible no matter how that energy is being produced.
A needed area of focus we have yet to respond to as a district relates to environmental education, and building capacity within our students, staff and families to meet the climate challenges ahead. The impact is and will be felt in everything from the economy to food security, to scientific research and innovation, to building technologies, just to name a few. Climate change and environmental crisis will impact every sector of our lives, and our families and communities with the least resources to respond will be hit the hardest. As an organization, it is our responsibility to facilitate critical initiatives, many of which are already underway. We’ve now eliminated 1,800 pounds of daily food waste from the landfill, composting it with the help of Reunity Resources and Payne’s Nurseries. But we have an equal number of schools not yet participating, simply because of lack of trained staff to continue the effort. We have a vibrant recycling program, diverting 26 percent of our daily solid waste into the recycling stream. We partner with Albuquerque Recycling to recycle technology and electronics so that our Digital Learning Plan efforts don’t result in precious and rare earth metals going to the highest bidder, with plastics and other waste filling the landfills. We’ve eliminated approximately 5,000 plastic sporks and wrappers being thrown away daily in our elementary and K-8 schools by reinstating metal cutlery that can be reused for years to come. The majority of our disposable trays in cafeterias are compostable and made from 100 percent recycled materials, and although we cannot seem to win the Styrofoam battle completely, we’ve made tremendous progress.
This list of actions is by no means exhaustive, and I’d love to claim we have 100 percent buy-in. Where we don’t have full participation, it’s vital to ask why. Are we not supporting the initiative with needed equipment, staff training, or infrastructure to meet the goal? Sometimes this is true, and the easiest problem to solve. Do we have a lack of support at the decision-making or policy-setting level to create the network and accountability systems needed to truly shift thinking and culture? This is a current challenge, but luckily within our grasp to address if it is a priority at the board and superintendent levels. Do we struggle with the same disengagement around climate crisis that plagues many organizations and communities across the nation and planet? This is unfortunately our greatest challenge.
If you’ve been closely connected with public education and the increasing demands on everyone involved, then you understand the inherent difficulty in asking stakeholders to entertain more tasks and training. This is why we are working on funding a new sustainability programs position, through grants, to facilitate and develop curriculum, programming and professional development. If we don’t start responding now in every way we can, 10, 20, or 30 years from now, a beautiful building, a winning sports team, an effective teacher evaluation program, or the latest technology will pale in comparison to water scarcity, extreme weather events, forest fires, climate refugees and food insecurity.
Intentionally and strategically addressing environmental/economic/social crisis now will be much cheaper, much less painful, and much more impactful than waiting until we have little choice or resources to respond effectively. This isn’t about panic; it’s about intelligent, honest, prioritized planning and resource allocation at every level. We have the potential, we have the talent, and the will is growing. The Climate Action Task Force members, working groups and volunteers are demonstrating both individual and collective commitment to move us all into much-needed action around environmental resiliency and responsibility. The time is now.
Lisa Randall is the Energy and Water Conservation Program coordinator for the Santa Fe Public Schools. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org