Decarbonizing School Districts

School districts are organizations that have a large potential for reducing the carbon emissions of our local communities. Let’s explore some of the work that is being done in this sector and see where we can push farther!

Episode index

00:00:00 | Intro
00:02:26 | SPPS students riding public transit
00:05:34 | Erica Wacker, SPPS Director of Communications
00:26:05 | Staff Transportation Demand Management
00:29:28 | Bike bus!
00:33:34 | Jody Volk, Health Teacher at Seward Montessori
00:38:26 | Student drop-off and parking
00:41:10 | Land use
00:43:30 | Divestment: Uriah Ward, SPPS board member
00:58:01 | Solar on schools
00:59:03 | Waste reduction
01:01:25 | Outro

Further resources

Attributions

Our theme song is Tanz den Dobberstein, and our interstitial song is Puck’s Blues. Both tracks used by permission of their creator, Erik Brandt. Find out more about his band The Urban Hillbilly Quartet on their website.

This episode was hosted and edited by Ian R Buck, with transcript by Mike Allen, first of his name. Christy Marsden is our awesome guest booker, and technical assistance is provided by the super professional Brian Mitchell. If you’re able to help make sure this team gets paid for the hard work they do, please consider donating. We really appreciate it!

Copyright

The Streets.mn Podcast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license. Feel free to republish the episode as long as you don’t alter it and you aren’t profiting from it.

Transcript

Ian: [00:00:02] Welcome to the Streets.mn podcast, the show where we use transportation and land use to make our communities better places. Coming to you from beautiful Frogtown St Paul, Minnesota. I am your host, Ian R. Buck. Today we’ll be exploring the role that our local school districts can play in reducing our community’s carbon emissions. Find show notes and a transcript of the episode at [https://streets.mn]. So a lot of attention is paid to the role that cities and counties play in reducing carbon emissions, designing safer, more inviting streets and shaping land use. But we often overlook the things that our school districts can do. When you start thinking about it, there are a lot of potential avenues for action. School districts are large entities, so any actions that they take to directly reduce their own carbon emissions or the emissions of companies that they contract with will definitely have a large impact. School districts employ a lot of staff and serve a lot of families. So anything that they can do to nudge the personal carbon emissions of those people will also have a large impact. And school districts own a lot of properties throughout their communities. So the land use decisions that they make for those properties will have large impacts. And of course, school districts are educating the next generation of community members, so the attitudes and habits that are instilled in today’s students will have large impacts far into the future. And we’re going to touch on some aspects of all of those things in this episode. By the way, my day job is teaching high schoolers. I was at Harding High School in St Paul Public Schools for seven years, and this year is my first year teaching at the online school in Minneapolis Public Schools. A couple of years ago, we started a climate action group within the St Paul Federation of Educators, and this year we’re getting a similar group started within the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. So I’ll definitely be drawing on my own experiences with these groups to talk about how things have gone, working with the school districts to effect change. If you’d like to get involved with either of those groups, let me know by emailing [podcast@streets.mn] and I’ll get you connected. So let’s get into it. We’ll start with transportation, since that’s the area that I spend the most time thinking about. In addition to transporting large numbers of students, our biggest high schools have like over 2000 students. So that’s as many people as a small town, all in one building. There’s also a lot of facilities, equipment and like food services, materials that have to be moved around within a school district. A lot of this is done with a fleet of medium sized trucks owned by the school district and of course, contracting out school buses. These diesel vehicles emit a lot of carbon, so it’d be awesome to electrify those fleets. We’re starting the process of introducing electric school buses in Minnesota, thanks to money from the Volkswagen pollution cheating scandal. But those grants are rolling out pretty slowly, if you ask me. We have less than ten electric school buses currently active in the whole state of Minnesota. And given the tight budgets of public school districts, the state’s going to have to put in a lot more money behind this initiative to really get the ball going. Once we get past the initial hurdle of like installing charging infrastructure at school facilities, I expect we’ll probably start to see more momentum in electrifying fleets. But there are ways to reduce transportation emissions without new technology. We just need to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled within the system. Enter public transportation. So Minneapolis Public Schools has transported their high schoolers via Metro Transit for many, many years. And a lot of us in Saint Paul were looking to replicate that on our side of the river. A few high schools participated in a pilot program that was creative arts in downtown [Saint Paul], Gordon Parks on University Avenue, and one of our mainstream high schools, Johnson High School.

Ian: [00:04:13] So about seven years ago, those three high schools started transporting their students by public transit. But things kind of stalled out after that. It seemed like we wouldn’t be able to expand that to the other high schools for a long, long time until some tough circumstances forced the school district to re-evaluate their system. So if you think back a little over one year ago, right before the school year started in fall of 2021, SPS suddenly found out that the bus companies that they contract with didn’t have enough drivers to cover all of the schools. I imagine that those companies are probably facing similar staffing challenges as Metro Transit, which we covered a couple of months ago on this podcast. Look for the link to that episode in the show notes. So SPPS [Saint Paul Public Schools] decided to shift four of our mainstream high schools to using Metro Transit and give all of those students unlimited transit cards. It was a bit of a scramble at the start, but we’re now a year out from that initial transition. And to find out how things have been going recently, I reached out to Erica Wacker, who’s the Director of Communications at SPPS. 

[00:05:27] [music]

Erica: [00:05:34] So it was not the way that anybody wanted it to happen, but it did. And now that. The school bus driver situation has not… It has gotten better since last year. We do have more yellow bus drivers. There’s not as much of a shortage, but it’s still not to the levels that it would need to be to go fully back to yellow buses. So now it’s really the norm. So our whole goal starting last spring and this summer, was really knowing that this is a long-term change. What can we do to proactively make sure that the students and their parents and the staff feel more prepared and feel like they can be confident and know how to get to school and not feel like this is something that’s being taken away. Not having yellow buses, but that it’s an opportunity for them to develop new life skills and have freedom. And they can take the bus not only to school but to jobs and to meet up with their friends. So there are a lot of benefits to what was initially an emergency situation.

Ian: [00:06:48] Yeah. So, okay, so since we’ve had a whole school year, right, to come to terms with this new system and, you know, as, as a district like put together resources and work with the families and everything on preparing for the next school year. Like what has that look like? What what have we been doing.

Erica: [00:07:07] Yeah. So what we did so starting when it was first announced, it was sort of let’s see what happens. Maybe by winter break there will be a new crop of school bus drivers. That did not happen. So it remained for the duration of the last school year. So once we got sort of through winter break and into the spring, we did what districts tend to do and we formed a work group. So people from all over the district, from our transportation department, from family engagement, from principals at the high schools, counselors, as well as Metro Transit staff. And then we also have partnered formally with Move Minnesota. So pulling all these people together to talk about what are we seeing, how is it going, are kids taking the bus? Are they not? Are they having any problems? So a lot of sort of data collection. One of the sort of initial findings we had was through our safe routes to school coordinator. She had done a survey with three of the schools that had switched over so Central, Como, and Harding, and it was just sort of a point in time like one three school days. How did you get to school and how did you get home today? Did you walk or bike? Did you take transit, Did you carpool or did you come in a family vehicle?

Ian: [00:08:41] I remember I remember doing that survey with my students and the results were really depressing for me.

Erica: [00:08:47] Yes. Yeah. So the on average, about 70% of kids across all three of those schools were driving or carpooling. 7 to 15% were walking or biking. And then between 14 and 18% were using transit. So that was pretty eye opening to everybody. I mean, we got everybody these transit passes, they are a district expense. We wanted people to be using them. And the increase in driving was creating its own problems with congestion at pick up and drop off times. I know one of the schools talked about like they had to have the sort of drop off line go through the staff parking lot, which just created these huge potholes in the staff parking lot that had to be repaved. Just some safety concerns with all the cars and people trying to cross the street. So we sort of came together with the goal of increasing the usage of transit and what do we need to do in order to make that happen.

Ian: [00:09:57] All right. So we’ve got a work group.

Erica: [00:09:58] Got a work group.

Ian: [00:09:59] And we’ve got we’ve got our parameters for what the goals are. And what what did the work group come up with? What do we doing.

Erica: [00:10:07] Yeah, so one of the I think the best initial outcomes was that through our one of the people on the workgroup was our lead counselor for middle schools. So we have this class in middle school called Foundation. It’s sort of like your advisory homeroom, if you will, where you kind of learn different life skills, financial literacy, kind of those other things that you’re not learning in your core math, social studies, language arts classes. So they sort of at the end of the school year, in eighth grade, you start learning about transitioning to high school. So we were able to create a metro transit lesson for that class. So every and it was a required lesson, a two day, two part lesson. So every eighth grader in the district got this Metro Transit lesson. So it was put together with some existing materials from Metro Transit. They do a lot of student outreach and engagement through their organization already. So kind of taking that and then having our middle school curriculum. People who know how to translate things for an eighth grade audience kind of building and making it more interactive, making it fun for the kids and building it out so that it would be relatable for this age group and so that the teachers, even if they had never ridden transit themselves before, could teach it. So that was one of the biggest initial things that we did. We also were able to purchase some summer passes. So Metro Transit sells student passes for 30 bucks…

Ian: [00:11:47] Right.

Erica: [00:11:48] …for the summer. So we let families know they anybody could buy one if they wanted to. But we also bought as a district a quantity of them to hand out to kids who might not be able to buy one just so they could have an opportunity to practice over the summer. Their parents could ride with them as they’re learning so that it’s not the first day of school and they’ve never been on a bus before. We also have in Saint Paul, we have a high school for immigrant and refugees called Leap, and so they sort of got some additional training from Metro Transit directly. They did some rides where they all got on the Green Line together and practice riding, and so they were one of the schools that was going to be moving to Metro Transit this year. So they wanted to make sure that they were really ready and they’re pretty close to the Green line. So that was some targeted outreach just for that school in addition to what everybody else had. And Metro has been really good about, they’re keeping close tabs on those routes that do service our schools so that when they need to make adjustments, those are always part of their planning. And they actually this as of October, end of October, they were able to add a route to Como Park High School because that was one that they were consistently over capacity at those school times. So that one and then they’re looking into there’s also this mini bus or a shuttle that goes to Central up and down Lexington and they can…

Ian: [00:13:30] Oh, right. The route Route 83?

Erica: [00:13:33] 83 Yep. Because there’s that low bridge so they can’t use a full size bus and there’s a a third party that actually operates that route. So there’s a little bit limited what they can change, but they are trying to see if they can add another route to that one because that one is also high demand.

Ian: [00:13:52] I remember on the first day of school I kind of tried to get a few volunteers together to help like, you know, go to a few of like the transit transfer points, you know, like downtown Saint Paul, the Sun Ray Transit center, you know, where students might be changing from one bus to another to get to Harding and just help direct, you know, students and make sure that they know where they’re going. And one of the things that really like held that back from being a big thing was the fact that, well, all the teachers need to be at school already. 

Erica: [00:14:29] Oh sure.

Ian: [00:14:30] When the students are getting onto the buses to go to school. And so like like I didn’t have an advisory class, so I had, you know, like an hour and a half where I didn’t need to be in the school building right there at the beginning of the day. So I was able to do that. But it wasn’t a thing that could really be effectively supported as an official thing.

Erica: [00:14:53] Yes.

Ian: [00:14:54] And I believe I believe that the district has set up a like, you know, a framework for staff to be able to be like ambassadors in that regard. Right?

Erica: [00:15:03] Yeah. So we did that for the first week of school. So same exact ideas what you’re talking about, except we were we were able to tap into those staff who don’t have school-based responsibilities. So people who work in administrative offices as well as Metro Transit folks, we had people from the mayor’s office from Move Minnesota. So we were able to kind of pull together a little transit ambassador army of we actually had 57 people.

Ian: [00:15:39] [whistling]

Erica: [00:15:39] The first week of school. So we had shifts in every morning so that Tuesday through Friday and then shifts after school each of those days. So we tried to kind of pair up people to her staff and some of those same ones that you mentioned. So all those downtown transfer points, Sunray one, the Capitol-Rice couple down the Green Line Capital-Rice, Hamline, Lexington and then Dale and Maryland near Como, one that serviced Washington. So Metro Transit pulled from their data, what were those stops that are the most heavily utilized by students so that we were able to assign people to those. And just like your colleagues at the school, were not necessarily transit experts, neither were most of these ambassadors.

Ian: [00:16:32] Right.

Erica: [00:16:33]  So we made sure that they all did a training. So we did a virtual training with Metro Transit where they were able to walk us off through like, this is how you download the app and this is where you find this is what the numbers on the steps mean and this is what side of the street you need to be on if they’re going this way or this way, so that the ambassadors felt like they knew what they were doing. If students had questions on how to direct them to where they needed to transfer, which way they needed to walk from, where they got off to get to school.

Ian: [00:17:06] Yeah, yeah. There’s there’s no worse feeling than, like, waiting for the bus and then realizing that you were on the wrong side of the street and the bus just passes you by.

Erica: [00:17:17] Yeah, I mean, it’s not intuitive if you haven’t. Like, it definitely takes more… It takes some research and some planning to.

Ian: [00:17:25] Right.

Erica: [00:17:25] To figure out where you need to be. But once you have a hang of it, it’s second nature then.

Ian: [00:17:31] Yep, yep, yep, yep. Okay. So what kind of what kind of difference did all of these efforts and initiatives make? Give me some data.

Erica: [00:17:40] I have some data, so we just got some data from Metro Transit. So the way that they measure it is they call them tags. So that’s like how many times a pass is scanned on a bus or a train. So they compared this fall thus far. So from end of August until the end of October of 2022, compared to the same time in 2021. And the student ridership has gone up 50% across the board. So some of the schools like Central High School last year, they had 11,000 tags. This year it’s over 24,000. Como Doubled from 7000 to 16000. Harding From [14000] to 27000.

Ian: [00:18:36] Nice.

Erica: [00:18:37] And even Johnson, who has been riding for a long time, they went up from 26000 to 29000 tags. So. I mean, obviously correlation versus causation. But I do feel like some of these concerted efforts did make a difference and it wasn’t something that was sprung on people. They had time to think about it, to plan for it, to practice. We even had one of the members of the school board shared a story who of her student who goes to Washington Tech and initially was considering transferring to their neighborhood high school so they could walk. But she took the time to ride the bus with him and practice. And even though there was a transfer that they would have to take to get to their school, they decided to stick with it. And she was really appreciative of sort of those those life skills and just kind of that ability for her child to be part of the community and be riding the bus and learning how to get around and not not having to worry about about it.

Ian: [00:19:45] Yeah. I mean, thinking back on when I was a high-schooler, you know, I went to Central High School and I lived up on the East Side and like if we had had this system in place at that time, like that would have been a huge help for me, you know, because I did I did sports, I ran cross-country. I did track in the spring like Ultimate Frisbee. Who knows what part of the city you’re going to be in when you’re finished with with activities and stuff. And it would have been absolutely great for me to just be able to like, I can get home from here. I don’t need to go and find. I remember having to go and find a payphone to call my mom to come and pick up.

Erica: [00:20:31] [laughing] Your not that old to need a payphone!

Ian: [00:20:33] I did well, okay. I was a little bit weird in that I didn’t have a cell phone until like junior year of college because my parents just weren’t going to pay for one for me. Cell phones did exist, but I. I did not have one. I had to go and find a person with a cell phone or go to like a convenience store and be like. “Yo, give me…” Because payphone payphones weren’t active anymore,

Erica: [00:20:56] Right.

Ian: [00:21:00] Yeah.

Erica: [00:21:00] Yeah. And they don’t have to rush out of school at the end of the day to catch the yellow bus. So if you have a club or you have you need to stay after and talk to your teacher sort of unexpectedly, you don’t have to worry about not having a way to get home.

Ian: [00:21:16] Right? Right. You can stick around for even just 5 minutes and get home in the same amount of time that it would have taken you if you left right at the end of school. Yeah, for sure.

Erica: [00:21:26] Yeah. And we’ve also started offering the passes. So sort of the eligibility with transportation for schools, some of which comes from state statute. But if you live within a mile of your high school, you don’t get transportation, or if you open enroll from outside of the city, you’re on your own.

Ian: [00:21:47] Right?.

Erica: [00:21:47] So that’s how we started with the Metro transit passes, too. But we’ve now opened that up so that students who do live let’s say you live three quarters of a mile from your school or you live in Roseville or Mendota Heights and you’re coming in now, you can get a pass. You just have to request one from your front office. And so if you want to use it to get to school, if you want to use it for a weekend job or for whatever else, you can get one.

Ian: [00:22:15] Nice. Nice. That is fantastic because that’s an equity issue.

Erica: [00:22:20] Totally. Yeah. And it’s it’s Minnesota. It gets cold. So maybe if you don’t want to walk half a mile and you can hop on a bus and you can do that.

Ian: [00:22:29] Yeah. Yeah. And we’ve got a lot of, you know, BRT routes that are going to be coming online in Saint Paul in the next few years, most of which most of the ones that I can think of go past an SPPS High Schools 

Erica: [00:22:50] OK.

Ian: [00:22:50] I think we are in a good position for this system to become even better for the students over time.

Erica: [00:22:58] Yeah, and they’re I mean, the students are the future riders. So getting them accustomed to riding now, as opposed to most of the adults who grew up here didn’t grow up riding transit. And they’re they people just don’t because they’re more comfortable getting around in their cars. But with Metro Transit needs riders and I know they haven’t quite come back to their pre-pandemic numbers of ridership. So the student population and then I think the U of M, they all are get free or very low cost transit passes too. So it’s it’s sort of a a win-win for everybody.

Ian: [00:23:39] Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Erica: [00:23:41] There are many, many benefits to it. So the fewer. Angry emails we get at the district, the better sign it is – No news is good news. So we’re not getting complaints from parents about please give my kid a yellow bus like we were when we first made this change. So I think all the signs are all looking positive right now.

Ian: [00:24:02] Fantastic. Yeah, that’s all that I can think of that I wanted to ask you about. Do you have any final thoughts? Anything that we didn’t touch on yet?

Erica: [00:24:12] Um, I think the one thing we didn’t talk about was the how we’re working with Move Minnesota. So they really come in and been a valuable partner because they do have that subject matter expertise that maybe district staff do not about transit. And so they’ve been meeting with students. They did some tabling at summer school, did some sort of interactive activities to get kids engaged and then asked who would like to be part of focus groups this fall. So that’s really what they’re working on now, is doing focus groups not only with students, but then trying to get the parents involved, too, because I think that’s where most of the hesitation comes in. It’s not the kids, it’s the parents who are nervous about their kids riding. So that’s sort of the next phase of our proactive efforts is is there some parent education that needs to happen along with the students so that they’re there feeling, feeling good about putting their their 14 year old on the bus and not having to worry about them?

Ian: [00:25:18] Right. Yeah. Yeah. A lot of teenagers think that they’re invincible.

Erica: [00:25:24] Yeah. And being the ambassadors out there the first week of school, I mean, 90% of the kids, they didn’t need us. Or if they did, they didn’t make it known. I mean, we were there. We could ask questions. People drove by and thanked us and appreciated us being there. But the high schoolers were like they knew what they were doing by the second or third day and they were good to go.

Ian: [00:25:47] Mm hmm. Yep. Yep. All right. Well, Erica, thanks for. Thanks for joining us for this episode.

Erica: [00:25:56] Thanks for having me.

Ian: [00:25:57] Yeah.

Erica: [00:25:58] Good to talk to you.

Ian: [00:25:59] You, too. 

[00:26:00] [music]

Ian: [00:26:05] So speaking of Move Minnesota, they do a lot of work in the Transportation Demand Management Area, TDM, which means that they usually work with employers, large companies who want to figure out ways of encouraging their employees to get to work through means other than just single occupancy vehicles, right? And so that’s you know, they’ve got a lot of experience in that. And they’re bringing that to the table for our school districts and getting influencing students to take transit. But I also, as a staff member have been thinking about this in the context of how do we get, you know, teachers, administrators, the the staff who work at these schools, how do we encourage them to start using low carbon forms of transportation? And, you know, there are a lot of things that the school district and that our teachers unions can do to to push this kind of thing forward. One of the really low hanging fruits in my mind is just like providing subsidized transit passes to staff members. Right? Currently, I think both SPPS and MPS offer just like the the pre-tax version of the monthly transit passes. But they’re they’re not subsidized in any way by the school district. So they still costs like 84 bucks a month. And and you know you have to be using public transit almost every single day, multiple times a day in order to for that to break even in terms of the cost. So offering like subsidized versions of that, I think would would help move the needle. I noticed recently on their website that superior public schools up in Wisconsin are offering free transit passes to the Duluth area transit system to all of their students and all of their staff, which is like, That’s awesome. Why aren’t we doing that kind of thing here in the Twin Cities? In terms of encouraging, walking and biking to school, a lot of schools are already in a pretty good position there. You know, many school districts have safe routes to schools programs that can help influence city and county, decisions about having having safe street facilities near schools and also like the schools themselves. If you think about a high school, usually they have quite a few, uh, bike racks available out front. If, if you’re if you’re a staff member, if you’re a teacher who is biking to school, usually there’s enough room in your classroom to just like store your bike there if you want to do that. High schools often have gymnasium facilities with like locker rooms and showers. So like it’s already checking a lot of boxes of like things that bike commuters ask for. Now, of course, to encourage students to walk or bike to school, sometimes you have to give them a lot of structure. I’m talking about the bike bus. So this is a concept that I first started hearing about last fall in Barcelona. Parents and teachers, you know, biking with the students to get to their elementary schools. And and this is really caught on in a few different places. Here in the US, one of the highest profile versions of this is in Portland, Oregon, where a PE teacher named Sam Balto has organized a weekly bike bus to his elementary school. And from the pictures, it looks like they’ve got hundreds of students who participate every week. And he’s written a little a little guide on how to get one started at your own school. His his advice includes: figure out why you’re doing this, because you know that that question is going to have different answers for different people. And being able to keep in mind why you want to do this for your community is going to keep you going, even even on tough days when the weather’s not nice, etc., etc.. You’re going to want to build a team, right? Doing this kind of thing completely on your own is just like it’s exhausting and it’s, uh, it’s not going to work as well. So his advice was hang around the bike rack before and after school and talk to parents who are biking with their children. And etc., etc.. And, you know, and recruit people. See if anybody wants to get in on this idea. Then, set up the route. So the way that Sam did this was he took a look at maps provided by the school district themselves of what’s what’s the area that the school serves and what are the like school bus routes, the the mechanized bus routes that pick up kids most days. And and he was able to plan a fairly simple route for for a bike bus that collected students from most of the places where the the buses were picking them up.

Ian: [00:31:54] Now of course, families are going to have to most families are going to have to bike several blocks to get to the route that the bike bus takes. But once they’re there, they, you know, get to join tens, even hundreds of other students on their way to school. And then, of course, recruitment spreading the word, get get fliers, make announcements at school, get people to come be consistent, right? He… It sounds like their bike bus happens once a week on Fridays. So it’s it’s not necessarily it doesn’t have to be something that happens every single school day. But, you know, some consistent schedule is going to help people to plan around it and participate effectively. And and I guess, I would add, have fun with it, right? This this is supposed to be a joyful event. So anything you can do to to make it, uh, make it a fun event is, uh, is definitely a plus. Now, we do have some pretty cool bike related things happening at our schools locally. Just the other week I was biking on the [Midtown] Greenway and I encountered a large group of students with a couple of teachers riding on the Greenway. And. And that’s when I found out that Seward Montessori School has a bike fleet of their own. So I contacted Jody Volk, who is the health teacher there, to ask her about it.

Jody: [00:33:34] Yeah. I’ve been at Seward for eight years, and before I even got to see the school, I was approached by a few of our parents that were very into biking and wanted to bring biking to Seward. So throughout the years they’ve applied for numerous different grants to get our own school fleet, and we currently have enough bikes for at least two classes to go on at a time with our newest and biggest grant being from the Minnesota Department of Transportation that we got, which are the bikes that you guys saw us on. And the bikes are used in health class and sometimes P.E. class. We teach all of the fourth and fifth graders how to ride. In the past, we’ve also had a third grade Learn to Ride program that was led by some of our parents. So by the time they came to fourth grade, they were already knowing how to ride. And we were able to take some more extensive rides during class. And some of our E2, which is our fourth and fifth grade teachers, actually take out the bikes and they go on field trips using the bikes as a mode of transportation, which is really fun and exciting for the kids.

Ian: [00:34:40] That’s yeah, that’s awesome. So what kinds of what kinds of like field trip destinations do they go to?

Jody: [00:34:46] They’ve gone to the [Minnesota State] Capitol before, to be a part of some of the big meetings. They’ve been on the news before through that, too. They take field trips to the river. They go on picnics. They’ve gone to Dairy Queen and the movie theater before. And at this point, it’s just one of our teachers that does that with her class. But we have other teachers that are interested in helping to do that in the future, too.

Ian: [00:35:09] Nice. So biking all the way to the Capitol with a bunch of elementary students.

Jody: [00:35:15] Yeah.

Ian: [00:35:15] Wow. That’s quite that’s that’s more ambitious than I would have gotten. That’s impressive. So how did the students like it?

Jody: [00:35:24] Well, they love it. That is their favorite part of the year. Since we just finished our rides last week, they’re already really upset and asking, “when do we get to ride again? When are we going again?” But it definitely brings them a lot of joy, especially for those that learn to ride during health class that don’t have bikes outside of school. So it’s really awesome to see them.

Ian: [00:35:44] So so the next grant I guess, is going to have to be for studied tires so that you can keep riding with the students during the winter, right?

Jody: [00:35:52] Yes.

Ian: [00:35:55] Oh, that would be awesome. Do you have a sense of how many students have like kind of taken, you know, taken to biking and like, have continued that outside of school because obviously the school can’t, like, give away the bikes to the students. Right?

Jody: [00:36:09] Kind of. We get a lot of bikes donated to our school and then our school has a bike shop inside of it and our parents and some of our kids, we used to have a middle school and they would run the bike shop, they would fix up the bikes. And then there’s a sign, a sign-up form online where the kids can go and request a bike to be donated to them once they get fixed up.

Ian: [00:36:31] Nice. So it sounds like this like initially came from like a like a parent’s initiative. Is there anything else like transportation related or bike related that the school is looking to do or that parents are asking for?

Jody: [00:36:46] Yeah, well, something that we have done a few years back, you probably saw it when you’re biking on the Greenway, our parents took the initiative with our bike program to get the intersection of 29th Avenue and the Greenway blocked off for cars.

Ian: [00:37:00] Okay. Mm Hmm.

Jody: [00:37:01] That is our current bike route. Now that we know the cars can’t go there. We also took initiative to with that grant to paint a traffic garden at our school. So on our blacktop, we have a simulated road.

Ian: [00:37:14] Okay.

Jody: [00:37:14] And the nearby, like, bike shops and programs are really interested in that. So that way they can come to our school and use that to when teaching safe riding. And as for what’s next, I say just got to stay tuned and see what our families ask for us and how we can promote it from there.

Ian: [00:37:30] Do you have any advice for other schools who might be interested in like, you know, getting a bike fleet, getting stuff like programs like this set up?

Jody: [00:37:38] My advice for them as a teacher would be to reach out to their district representative. I know right now in Minneapolis we were we got notice for how to apply for more grants and how to apply for getting bike fleets or borrowing the traveling bike fleets. So just if you’re interested, reach out to somebody in charge at your district level, reach out to your parent community because the parents, they know the best. They live in the community, they work in the community. And it’s just really helpful to have all of those people there to support you. And it’s not hard. It seems like a lot of work, but if you’ve got the right people, it’s pretty simple.

Ian: [00:38:14] Awesome. Well, Jody, thanks for joining me for the Streets.mn podcast.

Jody: [00:38:19] Thank you for having me. 

[00:38:20] [music]

Ian: [00:38:26] Another big pain point that we had last school year when many, many families were not comfortable putting their students on public transit buses was the extreme amounts of congestion that happened from many, many families driving their students to school to drop them off. And you you know, at Harding, you ended up with a like mile long line of cars on Third Street waiting to turn into the parking lot at the school. And I would really like to question the assumption that the drop off point has to be right there on school grounds next to the school, right? Why do we ask students who are taking public transit buses to walk, you know, several blocks to get to school? While in contrast, we allow students who are getting to school in cars to just drive right up to the building. I would propose that, you know, we should start designating drop off zones outside of the school grounds. Right? You know, in the case of Harding High School, which is in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Right. You could have, let’s say, four different drop off zones located, you know, to the northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest of the school building, you know, like two or three blocks away from it and have families drop off at at those particular spots, which will reduce the lines of of cars trying to get to those places and get out of those places by a factor of four. And it will also, you know, reduce the wear and tear on the parking lots on school grounds, right? So we’ve got less less maintenance to do there. And also, it just makes the public transit option seem a little bit more desirable because the amount of walking is less than or comparable to those students who are getting dropped off in a car. And while we’re at it, let’s also reevaluate the parking situation. Like our schools are often surrounded by massive parking lots, especially the high schools. And, you know, we’ve eliminated parking minimums in Saint Paul and Minneapolis. So let’s repurpose some of that space for other uses. And frankly, we should be providing the amount of parking that we want people to be using. Now, one trend that does concern me a lot is I have seen a lot of schools in like suburban and exurban towns that for some reason the schools are just like placed way out on the edge of town on some highway, you know, and they’ve got this gigantic parking lot next to them. And in those cases, like they’re just setting themselves up for driving to be absolutely the only option available to students to get to school. And and that’s the kind of like land use decision that we really want to be avoiding. So that’s something to to push for at the at the school board level is, you know, look for candidates who are going to commit to making more sustainable land use decisions. And speaking of land use, I have been thinking about schools in the context of like a complete neighborhood, right? When you think about a complete neighborhood, you know, often you think about streets that have a lot of mixed use buildings, right? With like commercial uses on the ground floor and then like two or three floors of apartments above that. And, you know, that’s a really good way of like increasing density and also increasing the like amount of services that are available to those people who are living there. And when you think about, like your typical school building set up, it really like interrupts that that kind of fabric of the neighborhood. And I don’t think that that necessarily has to be the case. Right? You could have school buildings that are mixed use, right. That have like apartments above them or below them or, uh, you know, other like commercial use happening in that same building. You know, we have examples of this in downtown Saint Paul, right? Saint Paul Public Schools has a school there in downtown that is part of a larger building that has a lot of other uses happening in it. So it’s not out of the question. We just have to really be like pushing the envelope and questioning, um, what are our priorities? Like, what do we want to have happen here?

[00:43:30] [music]

Ian: [00:43:30] And now for one that you probably haven’t thought too much about divestment. I was very surprised last spring when school board member Uriah Ward started talking about taking SPPS’s investments and removing them from fossil fuels. So I brought him into the studio to chat about that process.

Uriah: [00:43:51] Yeah, and I think that a lot of people were surprised that, like we were even talking about this because people don’t expect like SPPS or any school district to be investing funds. It’s not a lot of money. It’s like in the scope of the overall budget. You know, we’re like close to a billion-dollar budget, right, for for our operations. And the total amount of investments currently is like a little over 50 million, right? So like in the scope of everything, that’s pretty small and it is like for a specific purpose. A lot of people, as we’ve been doing this, have assumed that we’re talking about teacher pensions because they’ve heard about like pension divestment.

Ian: [00:44:27] Yes, Yes.

Uriah: [00:44:28] And it’s not.

Ian: [00:44:29] But that is a separate thing that like the union would have to, you know, talk to the folks who run our pension fund. Right. Yeah.

Uriah: [00:44:37] Like SPPS can’t just do that.

Ian: [00:44:38] Right.

Uriah: [00:44:39] But what we can do is change how we invest our OPEB fund, its other post-employment benefits. It is something that a lot of like governmental or organizations like entities do whenever they have financial obligations in the long term that they see as being like a risk for some reason. And in this particular case in Saint Paul Public Schools, you know, like there was like a time, right, whenever like benefits were more generous. But there are people who work during that time and we are still obligated to pay for those benefits whenever they were hired, right?

Ian: [00:45:15] Yes. Right.

Uriah: [00:45:16] And so we have an OPEB fund where we put money aside to make sure that we can cover those obligations for the long term as people retire and like enjoying their retirement and to make sure they can get the the the the benefits that they were promised. You know, we do have discretion over that fund to an extent. The fund is managed by Saintt Paul Public Schools through Wells Fargo, and we do have the potential to divest from fossil fuels and that particular fund.

Ian: [00:45:46] Mm hmm. Yeah. So when you when you first came to the Saint Paul Federation of Educators like Climate Action Group to talk about this, I was really I was delighted because I had recently gone through kind of this same process just on an individual level with our financial planner that I was like I brought up to him like, Oh, you know, it would be really nice. I would feel really good if we didn’t have my money specifically going to things like fossil fuels. And he was like, immediately I thought this was going to be something he was going to push back on. Yeah, you know, because one of my, like, low key life goals is to just always make my financial advisor a little bit nervous about the decisions that I’m making.

Uriah: [00:46:28] Sure. Yeah.

Ian: [00:46:29] But immediately he was like, Oh, you just want to put all the money into a socially responsible fund. And I’m like, Yeah, cool. Somebody named it. That means that it’s already a thing. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Let’s do that.

Uriah: [00:46:42] Right. And we had a really similar experience, right? So like whenever I brought it up as an idea, I was sort of expecting similar pushback. But the response we got was, Yeah, we know how to do that. And you know.

Ian: [00:46:54] And the response you’re saying was from SPPS staff who like work in the financial… Like…

Uriah: [00:47:00] Kind of sort of so like sort of a couple of different levels. So here’s, here’s like the history here. So like I came on to the board in January of this year. I got elected last year.

Ian: [00:47:10] Congratulations.

Uriah: [00:47:11] Thank you so much! Yeah. And as part of my like prep for coming on board, I decided to, like, take time to read through like, like meeting minutes for, like, previous meetings in, like, in prior years. And I would like, you know, ask people in the district and on the board like, you know, what should I expect of the annual meeting? And I just sort of like went through everything. And there was one thing in particular that stood out. There is a resolution authorizing the assistant treasurer of the board to make investments on behalf of the district. And then, you know, that sort of, you know, made me think, oh, okay, we have investments, right? So like, you know, do we invest in fossil fuels is like the question I had. And I started asking district staff before I was actually a member of the board, you know, do we invest in fossil fuels? And like, could we not? And the answer I got back after some some staff members checked with our bank was that, well, you know, we probably are. And, you know, there was an indication that it would probably not be that difficult to divest.

Ian: [00:48:14] Right.

Uriah: [00:48:15] And so whenever it came to the annual meeting, I cast the the only no vote of the night against doing the authorization like as sort of like a way to say, hey, this is really important and I really want to be able to address this before we vote on this again next year. And, you know, I continue to have conversations with with staff members, with board members. Staff members reached out to our bank and brought them into some meetings where we had a chance to talk with them. And they basically said like, yeah, it’s not hard. Like if you let us know that you don’t want us to invest in fossil fuels, then we won’t. And that was sort of like the beginning of a process of trying to develop language around a resolution.

Ian: [00:48:55] Yeah. Yeah. So. So really, the only difference between, like my individual experience and the SPPS experience so far is that like, well, I just looked at my wife and said, Do you want to do this? And she was like, Yeah, that aligns with, you know, our ideals.

Uriah: [00:49:11] Yeah, right.

Ian: [00:49:11] There’s a few more people who have to be on board in the SPS system.

Uriah: [00:49:15] Yeah, yeah, definitely a few more hoops to go through. It sort of went back and forth between different committees, right? So like, you know, I like the normal way to get something on the agenda is at the end of a board meeting. Like there’s a section for board members that say, hey, like, I think this should be at a future meeting agenda or it should be referred to a committee. And I did that, I think, in March and asked for divestment to go to the policy committee, which I’m also on, brought Wells Fargo representatives into the conversation. We spoke about, you know, what exactly it would take to make it work. Spoke to board members about what their concerns were about different versions of of the draft of the resolution. We spent time talking about like should this be a policy or should it be a resolution? And, you know, got to the point where now we’re we we do have a finalized draft version of the resolution that is going to be considered at our November 15th board meeting, which is the same day that the podcast is being released.

Ian: [00:50:10] Indeed. So folks who listen to this, you will know more than I do about, you know, how this went. So I definitely encourage I’ll probably I’ll update the show notes with, you know, like what happened on November 15th. So go take a look at that to to see were there like were there any concerns about like the idea itself?

Uriah: [00:50:35] Yeah, for sure. So the biggest concerns that we heard from the beginning were I think, really reasonable concerns about whether or not divesting from fossil fuels would cause us to have a lessened return on our investments. And so that was an initial concern, and it took the Wells Fargo representatives like telling us a few times for people to sort of like be, I think, really comfortable with the idea that like, you know, we don’t have to invest in fossil fuels to have a good return on investment.

Ian: [00:51:05] Mm hmm.

Uriah: [00:51:06] So that was one concern. Early on, I also did sort of like open it up to board members saying, you know, like I like fossil fuel divestment is something I think is important. I would really like us to do it. But while we’re considering this, is there anything else that anyone here would like to be included as a part of this process? And Director Allen and I had a conversation where she suggested that we should also consider divesting from private prisons or prison industry, and that is now part of the resolution. The impact of that and fossil fuels is a little bit different. So we did, you know, recently get information about how much we actually are investing in both of those things. We are not investing in private prisons now. So that is more preventative than it is actually a divestment resolution, whereas fossil fuels, we found that 19% of our investments will be moved as a result of this resolution.

Ian: [00:51:59] Nice.

Uriah: [00:52:00] So it is a fairly significant amount, a little over $9 million that will be changed. So there is actually going to be an impact if this resolution passes and it should happen pretty fast. What we’ve been told is it’ll take a couple of weeks to implement.

Ian: [00:52:14] Nice. Yeah.

Uriah: [00:52:15] Yeah.

Ian: [00:52:16] And the other I mean, the other reason that I really like this approach specifically is that like this is a thing that applies across many, many different, you know, organizations, areas like if you if you are a company that doesn’t have any like you don’t own your own like vehicle fleet that you can electrify or like, you know, whatever, like other other decarbonization efforts that we might be doing? 

Uriah: [00:52:45] Right.

Ian: [00:52:45] Like almost everybody’s got money,

Uriah: [00:52:47] Right. 

Ian: [00:52:48] And a lot of that money, like some of that money is probably being invested in some way. And so it’s like, okay, yeah, like everybody could take this step of like looking into divestment as an option, right?

Uriah: [00:53:00] And I’m encouraged by, you know, how like, how easy this process was for us. And I mean, obviously we’re not there yet and I’m not taking anything for granted. And right now we’re at a point where it does require a board vote. I do feel optimistic going into it, and I think that we’re going to have something to celebrate on the 15th. But no, it wasn’t terribly difficult. We worked really closely with Wells Fargo to make sure that our language and the resolution matched what they already tracked and was easy for them to implement.

Ian: [00:53:26] Oh, nice.

Uriah: [00:53:27] And so we sort of checked with them, like to make sure that like like the percentages and the resolution of like money or profits coming from fossil fuels matched what they were already tracking.

Ian: [00:53:38] Mm hmm.

Uriah: [00:53:39] And so we know for sure it’s going to be implemented in a way that’s not going to be difficult to do. And, you know, like you’re saying, there are a lot of organizations that have money and make investments. And, you know, it’s like they they try to get the best return possible. But I think it’s important that these entities consider the economic power they have, like in our society. Right? So whenever you have that much money where you put it matters. And, you know, if you have a chance to align your money with your values, you should take it, especially if it’s not terribly difficult to do. And if it’s not going to cause any negative effects on your finances.

Ian: [00:54:18] Right. I think Melvin Carter was the one who said almost exactly that same thing. But in I think he was specifically referring to like the budget of the city.

Uriah: [00:54:26] Mm hmm. Right.

Ian: [00:54:26] You know, like we have to put we have to put money into the things that we value. And if we’re not putting money into them, then we don’t actually value them.

Uriah: [00:54:34]  Right. 

Ian: [00:54:35] Yeah.

Uriah: [00:54:35] Yeah. And I think that’s you know, that is really important. And I think that you have to really think through what the impact of, of what you do with your money is, especially whenever you’re like such like a a large entity that spends this much, you know, the choices you make make a really big impact. Right. And whenever you have, you know, like $50 Million that you’re investing like that, that is a big chunk of money that, you know, you should try to direct in a way that is going to help cultivate the kind of community that you want to build.

Ian: [00:55:05] Yeah. Yeah. I think Uncle Ben said with big money comes big responsibility right?

Uriah: [00:55:09] Right. Right. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. That’s how I remember the movie, too.

Ian: [00:55:15] For sure. For sure. Marvel fans come at me.

Uriah: [00:55:20] You know, one thing? That was another point of concern that I didn’t mention before is the fact that we have not found an example of any other school district doing this.

Ian: [00:55:29] Mm hmm.

Uriah: [00:55:29] You know, as far as we know, we’ll be the first. Nice. Maybe one of your millions of listeners will chime in after the podcast comes out and, like, let us know, like, they’ve heard about another city that’s done it. But as far as we know and we’ve looked, we can’t find a single other school district that has done this, so we might be the first.

Ian: [00:55:46] Right. And hey, other school districts who might be listening to this episode. It wasn’t that hard.

Uriah: [00:55:52] Yeah!

Ian: [00:55:52] Go try it. Go do it!

Uriah: [00:55:54] Absolutely. It’s an easy way to to make a big difference, which, you know, there aren’t very many of those. So take it!

Ian: [00:56:00] Mm hmm.

Uriah: [00:56:00] Mm hmm. And the community has been really supportive to, you know, like, we have we’ve gotten a lot of emails, especially, like, as we’re getting closer to the vote from from parents, from students and teachers about fossil fuels. And I don’t think anyone’s written us, like, opposed to the divestment, like, everyone seems to be generally in favor. You know, not that you should weigh politics too much whenever you’re trying to consider doing the right thing, but in a lot of places, it doesn’t seem terribly difficult, you know, logistically or politically to do.

Ian: [00:56:29] Right. Right. Yeah.

Uriah: [00:56:31] So there are there aren’t school districts that have done this, but it’s not incredibly uncommon. Right? So there are a lot of cities that have done this. There are a lot of educational institutions that have done this to University of Minnesota, Macalester, Saint Olaf have done some version of fossil fuel divestment.

Ian: [00:56:50] Oh, nice.

Uriah: [00:56:50] And so we’re not totally alone. And, you know, as far as I can tell, there are not examples of cities and institutions doing this and then regretting it like no one’s gone back and said, actually, we do need to invest in fossil fuels, like it’s gone pretty well for them so far.

Ian: [00:57:07] Yeah. Just because like you said, you know, the return on investment is still very similar, right? Yeah.

Uriah: [00:57:13] Right. And so, you know, it’s exciting to see sort of this coalition growing and the more like school districts and cities and institutions that do this, the more it matters.

Ian: [00:57:24] Mm hmm.

Uriah: [00:57:24] Right. And so, you know, right now we’re really focused on trying to get this done in Saint Paul. But I’m hopeful that, you know, this can be sort of like a prompt for four more school districts to do the same.

Ian: [00:57:37] Mm hmm. Yeah. It’s. It’s not cheating when you, you know, take notes off of what other school districts are doing. Right.

Uriah: [00:57:45] Right. Absolutely. Yeah.

Ian: [00:57:47] All right. Well, Uriah, thanks for coming on the show.

Uriah: [00:57:50] Thanks. It was a real pleasure to be able to come on and talk to you about this today. 

[00:57:55] [music]

Ian: [00:58:01] All right. We’re starting to run short on time in this episode, so these last two are going to go real quick, but they are kind of what they sound like. Number one is solar on schools. So putting solar panels up on top of school buildings. The SPFE [Saint Paul Federation of Educators] Climate Action Group was pursuing this a couple of years ago, putting together a community coalition, a push for the school district to do that. There were some challenges with facilities and, you know, are the roofs built for that kind of thing on various different buildings? What’s the ownership model going to be? Is this community solar, you know, or are we contracting out to like Xcel Energy? Like, how is that going to work? So there are some details there that would need to be worked out. But overall, the the important thing is just, hey, do it. Put some solar panels on top of school buildings. It makes sense. And the last thing that I will touch on is waste reduction. So I contacted Mike Stoik, who works for Eureka Recycling and has been doing a lot of work with elementary schools to set up like waste reduction and composting initiatives and stuff like that. Some of the challenges in that area are they’re mostly contractual, honestly, because the like custodians at at our school district, their contract specifies that they are only handling trash. They don’t do recycling, they don’t do composting, they don’t do any of that stuff. And so, for example, like at Harding High School, I can tell you that we always had to have student volunteer groups that would come around and pick up the recycling or teachers would have to like bring their own recycling back to the back doors and and put them into the large recycling containers behind the school. Same thing for composting if you want to get that kind of thing started in a lunchroom, right, then it’s going to have to be an initiative that students and and other staff and possibly even parents, right? Get involved in and and really carry that banner forward. Waste reduction in the food services area is also something that like it’s only going to be addressed if the staff who are preparing that food on a day to day basis are paid to make sure that they are reducing waste because otherwise there’s there’s no mechanisms for making sure that that doesn’t happen. It’s you’ve got a lot of food, you’ve got a lot of students that you’re trying to feed. And if if you know, if if staff are not specifically told that they need to reduce waste, then, you know, they’re going to do what they can with what they’re given. So I know that waste reduction is going to be one of the big initiatives that the SPFE group is pursuing this year. I’m not sure what the MFT [Minneapolis Federation of Teachers] group is going to be focusing on yet. We haven’t finalized what our priorities are just yet. But once again, if you want to get involved with either of those union groups, let me know and I can get you in touch.

Ian: [01:01:25] Thanks for joining us for this episode of The Streets.mn Podcast. This show is released under a Creative Commons attribution non-commercial non-derivative license, so feel free to republish the episode as long as you are not altering it and you are not profiting from it. The music in this episode is by Eric Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was hosted and edited by me, Ian R. Buck, with transcript by Mike Allen, first of his name. Christy Marsden is our awesome guest-booker and technical assistance is provided by the super professional Brian Mitchell. If you’re able to help make sure this team gets paid for the hard work that they do, please consider donating at [https://streets.mn/donate]. We really appreciate it. If you have feedback or ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at [podcast@streets.mn] Until next time, take care!

About Ian R Buck

Co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, podcaster, and teacher. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation. "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"

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3 thoughts on “Decarbonizing School Districts

  1. Brian Mitchell

    I love to hear that bus ridership in the high schools are higher or much higher than last school year! This seems like a fantastic program to teach kids how to use transit and have independence to get around. Hooray for divesting from fossil fuels!

    1. Ian R Buck Moderator   Post author

      Yeah, I was thrilled by that detail! All of the schools that started using Metro Transit last year have doubled their ridership this year. We need to continue to grow that, but it’s a great start to the year.

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