Sustainability Focus Transforms NYC Schools

By Greg Zimmerman, Executive Editor  
OTHER PARTS OF THIS ARTICLEPt. 1: This PagePt. 2: Coordination Across City Organizations Drives Sustainability SuccessPt. 3: Finding the Funding for Energy Education and Efficiency

For John Shea, it all started with recycling, as these things often do. Shea, who came on board in August 2008 as the chief executive officer of the Division of School Facilities (DSF) for the New York City Department of Education, was immediately tasked with figuring out how DSF could do a better job recycling. "Schools had a reputation for not following Local Law 19," says Shea, referring to the city ordinance that deals with waste management and recycling. "My boss had gotten beaten up at city council hearings."

But after forming a recycling committee to tackle this particular problem, Shea soon realized the breadth of opportunity. Because sustainability had not been a priority at DSF, Shea says he fielded lots of questions not just about recycling but also about energy conservation, greenhouse gas reduction and many other facets of sustainability. So, with the blessing of the chancellor, Shea rechristened his recycling committee as a sustainability committee and dove in.

In the two years since, Shea's passion for sustainability and his team's hard work have transformed the nation's largest public school system from an organization that barely cared about green to one in which school buildings themselves are literally tools for learning about sustainability.

Indeed, Shea and his team aren't just focused on kilowatt hours and carbon footprints, though those are, of course, critically important. Their "holy grail," as Shea calls it, is integrating sustainable strategies into the school curriculum.

When you consider that 1.1 million students pass through the doors of New York City's public school buildings every day, it's easy to see how teaching that many young minds about electricity and conservation, recycling and other ways to be green can have far-reaching impacts beyond just those school buildings.

"The decisions we make are not just about energy conservation," says Shea. "They're about student achievement. That's been the focus: How can we do both? How do we make both of these better?"

But it's the school buildings themselves, all 1,263 of them encompassing more than 130 million square feet of space, for which Shea has direct responsibility. And Shea, under the guidance and goal-setting of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sustainable vision for the city called PlaNYC (see "PlaNYC: Playground Parks" on page 42), has undertaken the goal of making the nation's largest school system the greenest.

Mayor Bloomberg's goal is to reduce New York City's municipal energy use and greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from 2006 baselines by 2017. Public school buildings represent fully 40 percent of all municipal square footage in the city. So making a dent in the energy spend of the city's school buildings is a major step toward getting to the mayor's goal.

Soon after Shea took over as DSF's CEO in 2008, he made it a priority to continue an already-underway benchmarking initiative to get energy data for each and every school building inputted into the Energy Star Portfolio Manager tool. This strategy provided a foundation for going forward with energy-savings plans.

NYC Green Schools Guide

In 2005, the New York City Council passed Local Law 86, establishing a mandatory set of sustainable criteria for public buildings. The city's School Construction Authority (SCA) responded by developing a LEED-like green building self-certifying rating system it calls the NYC Green Schools Guide.

Much like LEED, the guide has five categories, including indoor environmental quality, site, water efficiency, energy efficiency, and materials. The reason SCA developed its own guide is to emphasize areas — most notably indoor air quality, which represents about one-third of the rating system's points — it felt were more critical to school construction.

Lately, the Division of School Facilities (DSF) has become much more involved in working with SCA on new construction projects, says Ozgem Ornektekin, director of sustainability for DSF. The reason for that is partly the team effort and relationship-building that's resulted from the large-scale energy efficiency projects, and partially the commitment to sustainability, as both agencies have realized the necessity of having facility folks involved in new construction planning so that they don't build schools that are difficult to manage — a mirror of a trend in the industry at large.

"When SCA improves their guide, they make sure DSF is a part of the conversation before changing the standard," says Ornektekin. "They don't do anything we can't operate, and now they provide training for us."

Shea agrees: "Our relationship with the SCA has grown over the past few years because of our shared commitment to the sustainability ideals, and that has led to more productive collaboration. SCA always solicited our input, but the teams now in place have a more involved working relationship."

— Greg Zimmerman


PlaNYC: Playground Parks

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's massive PlaNYC announced in 2007 contains long-term sustainability goals for the city in the areas of land use, water, transportation, energy, air and climate change.

While it is the municipal energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals (30 percent reduction by 2017) that get the headlines, one of the goals of PlaNYC is that every New Yorker be within a 10-minute walk of a park. Members of Shea's team sit on a land-use committee that is working on how to turn school playgrounds into public parks after school hours, on weekends and during school breaks.

This so-called Schoolyards to Playgrounds Initiative will convert 256 schoolyards to parks by 2013. Since 2007, 113 schoolyards have opened — 69 of which opened immediately because they didn't require any improvement. Renovations on the other 44 were completed as a partnership between the Parks Department, the Department of Education and the non-profit Trust for Public Land.

— Greg Zimmerman

Continue Reading: Bridge Builder: New York City School's John Shea

Sustainability Focus Transforms NYC Schools

Coordination Across City Organizations Drives Sustainability Success

Finding the Funding for Energy Education and Efficiency

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  posted on 9/28/2010   Article Use Policy

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