By LAUREL BUSBY
Special to Circling the News
During a student-run press conference, Palisades Charter High School students recently grilled LAUSD board member Nick Melvoin about how the district is fighting climate change.
They sought to push Melvoin and the district to combat the climate crisis by educating students on the topic and pushing forward Pali’s student-led endeavor to install an array of solar panels on campus.
“Despite extraordinary efforts over the last two years, we have no concrete evidence of when Pali is going to make the transition to 100-percent renewable energy,” said Peter Garff, the co-president of Pali’s Human Rights Watch Student Task Force (HRWSTF), which helped coordinate the event.
“Students have organized petitions, met with LAUSD officials, written and presented the first-ever student resolution to the Pali Board of Trustees about climate change, helped start the Clean Energy Task Force and met with PermaCity, a solar provider, to help develop a solar plan for Pali,” Garff said. “We have a perfect opportunity to help solve the climate crisis by transitioning to 100-percent renewable energy, but it seems like we’re not taking this golden ticket. In fact, I would ask: Are we taking this golden ticket and ripping it up and throwing it on the ground?”
Melvoin expressed support for the project and agreed that the timeline was not moving at the speed the students would have preferred.
The event, which was held in Lisa Saxon’s journalism class as part of the school’s first Climate Summit Day on April 22, included more than 30 minutes of back and forth between Melvoin and the students.
They peppered him with questions about the timeline for approving the solar panels, which would cover Pali’s roofs and parking lots, and would provide electricity savings as well as income from selling excess energy to pay for the conversion. As the school’s landlord, LAUSD has to approve these changes before any construction can begin.
Students repeatedly expressed frustration with the time it was taking for this review and approval, especially since PaliHi’s Board of Trustees a year ago unanimously approved a climate-change resolution, which included as one of the tenets the transition to 100-percent renewable energy.
Melvoin said he understood. “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been frustrated with the timeline of LAUSD, I would retire yesterday,” he said. The students laughed. He noted, “It’s easy for me to say ‘Hey, we have 1,000 schools. This takes a while.’ But from a parent perspective or a student perspective, they’re ‘Yeah, I don’t care. What about our school?’ Not in a selfish way, but it’s not your job to worry about 1,000 schools.”
Students mentioned a desire to begin installation of the solar panels this summer, but realistically, the issue wouldn’t be put on the LAUSD board’s agenda for discussion until July, according to Melvoin’s policy advisor, Kasey Kokenda. Melvoin encouraged the students to write and call board members, as advocacy campaigns have an impact.
Some of the students had already used their voices to make contact with Melvoin. Members of the HRWSTF began reaching out to him last year, meeting with Melvoin and his staff in smaller groups on three occasions as part of either the HRWSTF or Pali’s Clean Energy Task Force, which includes faculty and administrators. They had also emailed and worked to establish regular contact to push their climate-change goals.
At the press conference, Melvoin urged students to keep up this work. “I applaud your efforts and thank you all for your advocacy to help get the district and our lawmakers to treat the climate crisis with the urgency and the attention it deserves.”
He also shared some of the issues that slow the district. The most pressing was a prior PaliHi proposal headed for approval—a $34.6-million project involving water pipe repair, heating, ventilation and air conditioning that was scheduled for a vote the following week.
On April 26, the LAUSD board voted to approve installation of this system throughout PaliHi. Construction is slated to begin in the third quarter of the 2024 school year and end in 2026, according to the LAUSD website.
Another potential issue concerns the increased costs with district projects compared to private construction, Melvoin said. For example, the district must follow the Field Act, which ensures that schools implement additional earthquake safety measures in construction and improvements. Costs also rise because the school district must pay the prevailing wage and also abide by the California Environmental Quality Act, which has its own review process.
In his introductory remarks, he told the students that the district is pushing for many climate-change-oriented policies. A successful resolution, co-sponsored by Melvoin, committed the district “to the goal of achieving 100 percent clean renewable energy in its electricity sector by 2030 and all energy sectors by 2040.”
In addition, Melvoin noted that the district had recently approved implementing climate change education in its curriculum from kindergarten through senior year. The district also has approved seven pilot projects for installing solar energy at campuses at little or no cost.
Because LAUSD has a sizable budget to educate its students, who outnumber the population of Vermont, it can also have an important impact on climate change through its actions, Melvoin said.
“The potential for how we can move the needle on this is enormous,” he said. “Given our size, districts like ours can help move the market. If we insist that we’re only going to get electric school buses or we’re only going to purchase electric construction trucks, the market will adapt.”
Of course, he also noted that purchasing electric school buses also requires an infrastructure with charging stations that can support those buses, so there are additional expenses to consider. However, the district has already funded electric lawn mowers and leaf blowers to replace their old units and has begun transforming its vehicles.
“I won’t approve a new fleet of vehicles unless there’s a clean-air component,” Melvoin said.
In addition, he described how the district is working to enhance its campuses with more green spaces and outdoor classrooms. The district also has two campsites and was negotiating to purchase a campground for summer programs.
“We really have to get kids to fall in love with the planet we’re asking them to save,” he said. “We’re all being told that we have to save it, but for kids who live in other parts of the city where there’s only asphalt or where they don’t have park space, it’s very hard for them to understand why this is worth doing.”
But for the class of PaliHi students, moving forward on the school’s solar power project was the subject that their questions returned to again and again.
One asked whether approval in pieces might be a way to gain traction, and Melvoin said it could be. For example, some panels are intended to be placed atop new parking lot shade structures, so their installation wouldn’t require roof reinforcement or building retrofitting.
Melvoin also said that once their goal is achieved, “Pali can be a demonstration site for other schools in the district…I think the expansive nature and the ambitious nature of this project is new, and that’s why it’s really exciting.”