Op-Ed | Our city can repair NYC schools and create thousands of union jobs

FILE PHOTO: Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza tour New Bridges Elementary School ahead of schools reopening
Jeenah Moon/Pool via REUTERS

A majority of our nation’s school buildings are at least 50 years old. Think about that: the classrooms and other school facilities where our kids spend hours on end, five days a week, are in desperate need of renovations to deal with issues like leaking roofs, broken air-conditioning, mold or mildew issues, and poor air quality.

Here in New York City, the situation is even more dire: the average age of our school buildings is 70 years old.

This is a crisis for our students, and it’s especially acute in communities of color that have endured generations of underinvestment. The environment in which our students learn affects everything from their test scores to their health and well-being. Old, deteriorating school buildings rely on outdated equipment, pumping tons of carbon emissions into the air. Taxpayers are on the hook for millions of dollars in energy costs, which nationwide represent the second-highest costs for schools after personnel. We need to get this under control before it’s too late.

Fortunately, earlier this week, the White House announced the Biden-Harris Action Plan for Building Better School Infrastructure, a $500 million grant program that will allow states and cities to invest in green retrofits that improve energy efficiency, air quality, and health outcomes for students across the country. Importantly, these projects will create hundreds of thousands of new, good union jobs across the country, building a pipeline between public schools and union careers that will support strong communities and a just economy for all.

With this groundbreaking federal program in place, New York can show the way forward. That’s why here in our state, a coalition of labor unions formed Climate Jobs NY to advance a pro-worker, pro-climate agenda – a coalition that has grown to represent 2.6 million workers across every sector of New York’s economy.

Across our state, we are organizing behind ambitious plans to transition New York into a clean energy, equitable economy that creates pathways to good union jobs in communities of color, immigrant communities, and other underserved populations in our city. Last year, Climate Jobs NY and leading unions representing teachers, building service workers, cafeteria workers, and others working across the school system launched a centerpiece of these efforts  —  the Carbon Free and Healthy Schools initiative, calling for a paradigm-shifting investment to retrofit all New York City public schools with green infrastructure.

We believe our work is absolutely imperative for achieving racial justice across all five boroughs, because our schools’ crumbling buildings are not distributed equally. Right now, many of the public schools that educate our most underserved students are the ones in most need of repairs. If our city is to truly commit to addressing racial and economic inequity, our leaders must acknowledge that students of color are attending schools with inadequate HVAC and ventilation systems, faulty windows and doors, and decaying roofs — and they must take action to address it.

As it stands, one in four New York City classrooms have no air conditioning whatsoever  —  resulting in an unhealthy learning environment in warm weather months. A major investment in the Carbon Free and Healthy Schools initiative would represent meaningful progress in reversing decades of neglect.

We also know that the COVID-19 pandemic has been deeply traumatic for many students and teachers, forcing many of us to reimagine the way we approach education, public health, and our responsibility to one another. There’s no better way to demonstrate our commitment to the health of our next generation than by investing in safe and healthy schools.

It’s time to build the schools of the future: safe, healthy and carbon-free. If successful, we will eliminate 75,000 tons of carbon emissions from our schools, save tens of millions of public money and create thousands of union jobs in the process—  giving students of color a direct pipeline from their public schools to jobs that sustain careers and families. And we can send a clear signal to Washington and to other states and cities across the country: investments in addressing climate change can simultaneously be investments in our students and their health.

Given this moment, too much is at stake and we cannot wait any longer to act. Leaders across the country including President Biden understand that. Carbon Free and Healthy Schools represents a once in a generation opportunity for all New York’s public school children, regardless of zip code, to access modern, carbon-free schools.

Mayor Adams can forge his legacy in his first year by making a big investment in our children’s futures and mitigating climate change. With thousands of engaged working class New Yorkers and a nationwide network of climate activists standing behind him, now is the time for Mayor Adams to tackle our climate crisis and our city’s longstanding inequities by building a New York City school system that’s safe for this generation and the next.