DC Students Deserve Clean Air in Public Schools

Testimony of Catharine Ferguson, Ed.D.
Sierra Club DC Chapter
Budget Hearing on the District of Columbia Public Schools & Education Agencies
Committee of the Whole
April 7, 2023

Chairman Mendelson, thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony on the budget for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). My name is Catharine Ferguson. I am a retired public high school educator who currently trains aspiring principals. I am also a volunteer on the Clean Energy Committee of the Sierra Club DC Chapter. The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with millions of members and supporters. The DC chapter has about 3,000 dues-paying members in DC. We have chapters in all 50 states.

This is a difficult moment for DCPS as it struggles to recover from the effects of the pandemic while facing an injustice of inadequate funding. However, as our students know, an even greater crisis looms on the horizon–climate change. A majority of our youth are suffering from climate anxiety, manifested in feelings of fear, hopelessness, and anger. Importantly, these feelings are exacerbated by their “perceived failure by governments to respond to the climate crisis.”[1]

This Council has made laudable commitments to address climate change. Now, it needs to follow through on those commitments, beginning with funding the Greener Government Buildings Act (GGBA),[2] which mandates that buildings owned or financed in significant part by the District government must adhere to net-zero energy standards. The GGBA, through the creation of net-zero schools, provides enormous benefits – both health and environmental – to educational facilities, teachers, and students. Therefore, the Committee of the Whole (COW) should provide money to the Committee on Facilities and Family Services to fund the Greener Government Buildings Act.  

The mayor’s budget fails to adequately support this transition for government buildings managed by the Department of General Services (DGS). The fiscal impact statement on the Greener Government Buildings Act stated, “The bill will cost $8.4 million in fiscal year 2023 and $9.9 million in the four year financial plan.”[3] The fiscal impact statement also indicated the need for four FTEs to implement the policy.[4] The Mayor’s budget does not appear to include any additional FTEs for this purpose, and the DGS capital budget includes only $1.5 million for retrofitting District buildings in 2024. 

How far does $1.5 million for retrofits fall short? DGS manages nearly 300 large buildings, half of which need improvement to even comply with the Building Energy Performance Standards in the first compliance cycle. DGS’s own Energy Management Plan[5] estimates that even minor energy efficiency improvements to building operations cost in the tens of thousands, and can require up to a quarter million dollars to implement. Improvements at the level of upgrading windows, insulation and lighting have costs that easily rise over a hundred thousand per building, and can reach as high as a million dollars per project. In this context, a budget of $1.5 million would amount to a decision to make effectively no progress on the energy performance and carbon footprint of DC buildings in the coming year. 

In addition to the failure to address climate change, the missed opportunities for future budget relief are dramatic. Net-zero buildings have proven to save their operators serious money on utility bills. Just across the river, Discovery Elementary School in Arlington was built to a net-zero standard in 2015. So far, its energy bills every year have been $118,000 lower than for a typical school.[6]  A city spending millions per year on energy should consider energy efficiency an investment in future savings. 

In addition to saving significant amounts of money for DC taxpayers in the future, high efficiency and net-zero energy schools will enable DC children and adults to learn, play, and work in more comfortable and healthy indoor environments. Net-zero energy buildings eliminate all combustion of fossil fuels in the building, removing toxic indoor air pollution that contributes to asthma and a range of severe health impacts.

From our reading of DGS’s Energy Management plan, DGS should be funded at around $25 million for FY24 for energy retrofits. We realize it may not be possible for the committee to add this amount of funding to the DGS budget, but whatever additional funding you can add will pay significant dividends for the District in the future.

More broadly, the Sierra Club is deeply concerned that the mayor’s proposed budget fails to fund several essential programs that are vital both for the District to achieve its climate change goals - namely to achieve net-zero emissions citywide by 2050 - and to improve the quality of living and working in DC.  We are disappointed to see that the proposed budget would defund so many crucial environmental programs, from Zero Waste initiatives like the “Ditch the Disposables” program to Clean Water initiatives relating to lead line replacement and Clean Energy initiatives like the Building Energy Performance Standards. We strongly oppose the Mayor’s proposal to delay the Building Energy Performance Standards by three years. The District cannot afford to delay or defund such programs.

Chairman Mendelson, the Sierra Club very much appreciates your environmental and climate leadership on the DC Council, and we look forward to continuing to work with you in the coming years to ensure the District's vital clean energy, energy efficiency, and public health programs are appropriately funded.

[2] Law L24-0306, Effective from Mar 10, 2023 Published in DC Register Vol 70 and Page 003537

[3] Transportation and the Environment Committee report on B-24-0785, the Greener Government Buildings Act, November 30, 2022, https://lims.dccouncil.gov/downloads/LIMS/49460/Committee_Report/B24-0785-Committee_Report2.pdf.

[4] Committee report, p. 21.

[5] Department of General Services, “District Government Energy Management Plan,” pp. 15, 30-32

[6] Presentation of November 2019 meeting of the DMV Net-Zero Energy Coalition. Slide 37. Available at https://sites.google.com/view/dmv-nze-coalition/home/resources_1/november-1-2019-meeting