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Students and community leaders urge school board not to approve 'toothless' plan for reducing carbon footprint

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Portland Public Schools students held signs aimed at school board members Dec. 14. Students and community members urged the district's elected leaders to pass a climate crisis response policy that includes objectives like getting rid of gas-powered appliances in PPS buildings. As Portland Public Schools gears up to adopt a climate crisis response policy, some are pleading with the district not to strip away key elements.

More than a dozen students and community activists poured into PPS headquarters Tuesday evening, Dec. 14, during a PPS Board of Education meeting, urging stronger action on a plan to reduce the district's carbon footprint.

While climate wasn't on the agenda, the district's climate policy was up for discussion the following day by the board's policy committee.

"This climate crisis response policy is very important," Danny Cage, a district student council representative for Grant High School, PPS policy committee member and climate activist, told the board. "I know there are challenges with budget. I know there are challenges with enacting this policy. That being said, we need to be bold and we need to be brave. We do not have a long time until our planet is devastated."

The PPS climate crisis response policy was crafted as an ambitious plan aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building energy-efficient schools, transitioning the district's fleet of vehicles to electric or low-emissions by 2050 and dramatically reducing the district's reliance on fossil fuels. The plan also called for measures to reduce impacts to Black, Indigenous and People of Color, who are often hit hardest by climate change.

A widely-embraced iteration of the climate policy, dubbed "version 25," included a stipulation that PPS would prohibit the installation of gas-fired equipment in all new buildings and phase out fossil fuel equipment from older school buildings.

But somewhere along the way, much of the direct, specific language was redlined and recommended for removal by PPS staff.

Version 25 included eight specific objectives to help PPS reach a goal of designing and building low-carbon, high-performance schools and making sure renovations are energy-efficient and resilient to weather elements.

Those objectives included attaining industry-standard certifications like LEED gold status, utilizing Oregon's energy-ready commercial code, ditching fossil fuels in buildings, transitioning to sustainable building materials and limiting the amount of refrigerants used in buildings.

Each of those objectives was stricken from the latest draft and instead condensed to suggest PPS will "increase energy efficiency where feasible."

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Parents and community members, including former PPS school board member Mike Rosen, brought student-made signs to the Dec. 14 board meeting, urging the district not to strip away key elements of a climate crisis response policy.Critics say the latest draft of the policy is a toothless, scaled-back version with non-committal language that eliminates recommendations from students and community members.

Organizers with Sunrise Movement PDX, a youth-centered climate justice group in Portland, sent a letter to the school board asking the district's elected leaders not to cut or shrink the initial PPS climate goals of switching to an electric vehicle fleet by 2035, eliminating single-use plastic utensils and trays, divesting from fossil fuel companies and making the district carbon neutral by 2040.

"Last summer we had a heatwave with the highest temperatures in the state of Oregon's recorded history," the letter stated, noting Oregon's drought, wildfires and ice storm. "This is all a direct result of not just the climate crisis but also the failure of past and current generations to take action to stop it."

Sunrise Movement PDX is part of a larger, nationwide youth-led grassroots effort to spark bold action relating to climate policy and create more green jobs. The Portland group has been most visible in its repeated protests and opposition to a controversial Oregon Department of Transportation project to widen Interstate 5 in Portland, likely displacing Harriet Tubman Middle School.

Amy Higgs is the executive director of the Eco School Network, which represents 53 PPS schools. Higgs said PPS staff made the late-stage revisions, to the surprise of many stakeholders.

"At last week's policy committee meeting, we were surprised and disappointed by the proposed streamlining of the policy," Higgs told the school board. "Staff may feel overwhelmed by the scope of the policy. Climate justice touches so many areas of district life. Version 25 of the policy is four pages long and the streamlined version is just one-and-a-half pages."

By comparison, the district's policy regarding animals in classrooms, Higgs noted, is six pages.

Higgs said the streamlined version "omits all the measurable outcomes that make the policy strong."

Once the climate policy document is approved by the committee, it will go to the school board for approval.

Julia Brim-Edwards, one of four PPS board members on the policy committee, said some of the revisions came from PPS staff, in an attempt to avoid redundancies and duplication of existing district policy. Other revisions were an attempt to move some elements out of a policy document and instead make them administrative directives. But board members don't have control over administrative directives, Brim-Edwards noted.

"I think we have a strong policy that is responsive and hopefully will put PPS in the position to hit our target by 2040," Brim-Edwards said. "People may be wondering tonight why it's not out of committee yet. It's a big policy and there are a lot of points of view. Climate science is evolving rapidly and how institutions respond to it. … I also think there comes a point in time where perfect becomes the enemy of good."

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