scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Unions, climate groups call for ‘decarbonizing’ R.I. public school buildings

Climate Jobs Rhode Island calls for using federal funds and placing a school bond referendum on the ballot in 2022

The Carl G. Lauro Elementary School in Providence.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — A coalition of labor unions and environmental groups is calling for Rhode Island to tap federal and state funds to “decarbonize” public school buildings by shifting them from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

The Climate Jobs Rhode Island coalition is urging Governor Daniel J. McKee and General Assembly leaders to back a 2022 school bond referendum and to use some of the $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money to help school districts who already have projects underway.

The coalition said the “Green and Healthy Schools” initiative would help Rhode Island meet the targets established in the newly enacted Act on Climate, which requires Rhode Island to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050. Decarbonizing every public school in the state would eliminate 105,913 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, the group said.

“Crumbling schools powered on fossil fuels are bad for kids, teachers, support staff, school lunch employees, and our planet,” Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George Nee said. “It’s time to rebuild our schools for the future — with solar panels, energy efficiency retrofits, and climate-safe school buildings. And let’s do it with the strongest labor and equity standards in the country.”


While the coalition is still trying to pinpoint how much the decarbonization work would cost in total, Cornell University researchers estimate that $2.45 billion in investments over nine years would be needed to achieve “net-zero” emissions, coalition policy analyst Mike Roles said.

The Worker Institute at Cornell University estimates that Rhode Island could create more than 11,200 jobs over a total of nine years by doing the work. And school districts — which spend an average of $35.2 million per year on energy costs for electric, natural gas, and heating oil — would save millions of dollars by investing in energy efficiency, solar power, and other upgrades, the coalition said.


The work would allow school buildings to generate as much energy as they use in the course of a year. Potential examples of that work include:

● Meeting the highest efficiency standards in design, construction, windows, walls, insulation, roofing, plumbing, appliances, and HVAC systems

● On-site solar installations

● On-site geothermal installations

● Heat pumps

● Battery storage systems

The average public school building in Rhode Island is 56 years old, and problems with poor ventilation, crumbling ceilings, leaky roofs, mold, and lead pipes pose potential health risks to students and teachers, the group said.

“From leaky roofs to broken air conditioning and lead pipes, crumbling school buildings can pose serious health risks and make our schools more vulnerable to climate impacts like extreme heat and flooding,” said Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island. “Green and healthy schools are an absolute necessity when it comes to the climate crisis and keeping our children and communities safe.”

Priscilla De La Cruz, senior director of government affairs of Audubon Society of Rhode Island and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island, said school buildings across the state are powered by “dirty fossil fuels,” and it’s been decades since many were updated.

“Building green and healthy schools — with a focus on targeting investments in communities of color on the front lines of climate change — can take action on climate change, create thousands of good union careers, and advance racial equity,” she said.


Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, noted that Rhode Island launched the nation’s first offshore wind farm, near Block Island. “Rhode Island can continue to lead the nation in climate action by stepping up as the first state to commit to decarbonizing all public school buildings and creating thousands of good union jobs in the process,” he said.

Roles noted the state passed a $250 million school construction bond in 2018, but school districts were able to leverage those funds to get matching dollars from municipalities and federal programs, bringing the total so far to $1.4 billion.

“The return on investment for a bond like the one we’re calling for is exponential,” Roles said. “Not only would districts be able to leverage matching dollars from elsewhere, but the less hard-to-quantify benefits are monumental. That includes improving health and education outcomes for future generations of kids, fighting climate change, improving the local economy by increasing access to quality jobs, and saving districts money, and allowing them to redirect dollars to other necessities.”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.