President's Corner

Going Green and Getting Credit

by EDGAR B. HATRICK

Every day, at every level of government, more and more attention is focused on sustainability and “going green” — and with good reason. From a scientific standpoint, we know that fossil fuels, our current major sources of energy, are limited. We also know that decreasing our carbon footprint, a term most of us didn’t know just a decade ago, is vital to the future health of our planet and its people.

Edgar HatrickEdgar B. Hatrick


What’s often not acknowledged is that public school students and staff have been taking energy conservation measures for almost 50 years, and certainly since the oil crisis of 1973. For decades, schools have been manually turning back the dials on heating and turning off the cooling (if they had it) whenever buildings were not occupied. It simply made good sense. In many cases, students, with educator direction, led their families and communities in the essentials of conserving energy and increasing sustainability.

So why is it we often don’t get credit for what we’ve been doing for years? I think it’s because as educators we are not always good at tooting our own horn. We do things simply because they are right. This altruism is fine, but it may be diminishing the community’s recognition and appreciation of public school leadership in attacking problems that face society.

Because our primary mission is preparing future generations of students to be responsible Americans and world citizens, our total story of what this means may get lost in the maze of testing and measurable results about “subjects”; society loses track of the values of a comprehensive education.

We are on the right track, to the extent we are preparing our students to be better stewards of the planet than we have been. To the extent we help students open their minds to new ways of approaching age-old problems, we are truly preparing them to be responsible world citizens. To the extent we help students challenge the artificial barriers to change that often are raised by special interests, we are freeing them to be better guardians of their environment than those who came before.

A wonderful benefit of environmental education and practice is that we really can save precious dollars for education that now are burned up by waste and undisciplined human behavior. It does make a difference that we turn off the lights when we leave a room. New mechanical equipment with sophisticated electronic controls can save energy, but changed human behavior can do as much or more, and those habits will last a lifetime.

In my school system in northern Virginia, we have built 46 new schools since 1995 and done major renovations to 16 more, some of which are almost 100 years old. Modern equipment certainly helps our conservation efforts, but primarily it’s changed behavior that has allowed us to avoid $35 million in energy costs since 1993. We publicize that savings by pointing out the equivalent trees planted and automobiles removed from the road that these energy savings represent — the green footprint, if you will. But we also publicize the fact that these savings represent the cost of building a new 1,350-student middle school, the value of 585 teachers for a year or the annual cost of educating 2,917 students.

As we lead school systems in the worst budget times I have known in 43 years, we must get credit for what we do to save money while saving our environment. This allows our local, state and national communities to invest needed dollars in educating the future, our students.

Edgar Hatrick is AASA president for 2010-11. E-mail: ehatrick@aol.com