I’ve been having conversations with Bellingham School Superintendent Greg Baker and the district’s Director of Facilities and Sustainability Mark Peterson, trying over the last few months to get the school district to commit to real, measurable, change regarding sustainability. In the immortal words of Greta Thunberg, their response was basically, “blah, blah, blah.” I suggest that if the schools won’t commitment to sustainability, let’s say NO to enabling them to further damage the environment under the false guise of sustainability. We need details and real commitments. Not greenwashing!
While they use “sustainability” as a buzz-word in their 2022 facilities bond propaganda, they have consistently refused to make real, large-scale, measurable commitments. For example, some of their projects, like building a new (unnecessary) elementary school, will actually cause horrific, irreversible, damage to the environment. Then, there is their environmental hate crime of building a bus barn on top of a salmon bearing stream. The solar array at the new Sehome High School was installed by volunteers because the school didn’t budget for it, and they didn’t bother with a heat pump. Even filling out the application to get a free electric bus was apparently too much trouble, so of course they absolutely refused to purchase one. When asked about installing more solar panels they say the schools are “solar ready” but offer no information as to when they’ll actually install any. Besides, solar panels are so versatile that they can be installed on almost anything. For example, a horses ass is large enough to fit some solar panels to, so following the schools’ example I guess we should say that the horse is therefore “solar ready.” Make no mistake, Bellingham School District plans to continue in this same manner with any new bond funding.
So what are they trying to do? They’re trying to use public concern for the environment to get us to vote for this bond and a huge tax increase. But in fact, the bond makes no solid commitments to sustainability, will likely cause further harm to the environment, and will surely line the pockets of predatory developers. What it won’t do is guarantee any measurable increase in the quality of education for our children.
Here is a quote from the bond flyer,
“If voters approve this bond, the rate per $1,000 assessed value will go from $3.47 in 2022 to $3.72 in 2023 and 2024. This means the combined tax rate for schools (levies and bonds) will increase by an estimated $16.90 per month in 2023 (compared with 2022) for a median homeowner* in Bellingham.”
Notice the language here. They are using the smallest increment to get you to believe this is not a huge tax increase. It is. To make this real, it means that a home valued at $500,000 (currently only a 3-bedroom home of about 2,000 square feet) would pay $1,735 additional dollars in 2022, and that amount will increase for two years after that. The result will be the schools ending up with a total of $122 million dollars. Or about enough to build another facility like the new Sehome High School. The reality is that very little money, if any, would be left over for anything else after building a new elementary school regardless of what they say.
Many of the people living in homes like this are poor and middle-income workers and seniors who will be hit hard by such an increase. Let’s allow them to spend this money on solutions that will actually make a difference in carbon emissions. Let them keep their money and spend it on electric cars and solar panels for their own homes. The schools clearly aren’t willing to make real commitments to sustainability.
Further, we have to ask ourselves whether it makes sense to build new buildings when education is clearly going almost entirely online. Granted, we don’t actually have the infrastructure to do online education well in Whatcom County, but this bond request won’t help that issue. In Bellingham, our institutions are using those infrastructure commitments to enrich special interests who are half-assing the installation of the robust fiber infrastructure we really need; but I’ve written about that many times before, so let’s focus on schools.
Every time I push the district for details and statistics, they dodge the questions with greenwashing lingo and refuse to commit. The plan seems to be that by using environmental buzz-words and providing vague information they can lull us into “feeling” informed and voting “yes.”
If you ask, the school district will send you a long list of small things they’re doing, but again it’s mostly greenwashing. For example, they say the schools “meet or exceed OSPI standards,” but omit the fact that the OSPI WSSP standard is self-certifying and minimal. The LEED Silver standard is a bit better, since it’s at least independently certified, but still not good enough. I’ve asked the school district many times to commit to LEED Gold. They will not.
So how about instead of a new school building being the #1 priority for our school district, we make sustainability the #1 priority for our schools with this bond. Below is a list of the commitments/goals we want from our schools for the next three years:
1. Upgrade all existing buildings to the LEED Gold standard or better.
2. Reuse existing buildings instead of building new ones.
3. If a new one is built, commit to a zero emissions standard.
4. Purchase at least 10 electric school buses within the next two years.
5. Install heat pumps, solar, and renewables wherever possible in schools ASAP.
6. Support public fiber to the premises and allow inexpensive external wireless access points at schools so people can use the school’s vast fiber-optic resources.
7. Provide all-vegetarian cafeteria meals, not just as an option but as a commitment to eating low on the food-chain and saving resources.
Since the school administration seems incapable of making a real statement of commitment I’ve drafted an example for them to use,
“Bellingham School District recognizes that in this time of climate emergency we need to lead by example and show our students that we value their lives and futures by creating the most sustainable schools possible. Hence, we are committing to cover every school roof with solar panels within the next 3 years. Furthermore, we need to stop pretending that we can ignore this issue. Our children deserve better than we have given them. We are going to change for the better, starting now, by making real, measurable commitments and providing the public with details on how well we are doing every step of the way. We will never ask for an upgrade again without explaining the benefits in detail."
As it stands now it's obvious the schools hope to follow in the footsteps of the COP26 greenwashing extravaganza. They hope to get hundreds of millions in dollars by saying the word sustainability out loud, repeatedly while making no significant commitments. I hope this is not the case, but they have not provided enough detail to indicate otherwise and they definitely haven't committed to anything.
And finally, a closing pitch for fiber-optics. The COVID pandemic made it crystal clear that the digital divide effects most students in Bellingham more than any building could. On top of that it’s clear that most education is going online. So we need to prepare for that scenario. New school buildings are ultimately already obsolete.
Make no mistake, fiber-optics are a huge part of solving the environmental crisis. No other tech can do it. For example, Starlink is garbage compared to fiber, it is awful for the environment and even Elon Musk says, "it's a nice compliment to fiber." NOT a replacement for it. The same is true of every other tech. Some, like DSL and cable, are just obsolete. Others create lots of waste and don't work well. They all perform poorly when compared to fiber. Fiber lasts the longest, is the easiest to repair, has virtually unlimited bandwidth, and uses the least amount of power. Let’s look at just life-span: fiber lasts 100 years; 5G wireless tech, as little as 7; Starlink satellites fall back to Earth in as little as 30 and need to be put into space in the first place; copper lasts about 30. All of them have very limited bandwidth compared to fiber.
Installing a county-wide fiber network would cost about the same amount as the Sehome High School project and would pay for itself via leasing, next-generation jobs and more. Fiber doesn’t cost money, it makes money. Why would we spend the same amount on an unnecessary new school building, that only helps a few, when we can spend the same amount and help everyone in the entire county via fiber?
[Note:To compare the underlying tech, see, https://whatcomwatch.org/index.php/article/untangling-the-wires-understanding-tech-recognizing-fiber/]