Boise High student Flannery Streiff worries she’s going to have to wear a mask outside long into adulthood.
Not because of COVID-19. Because of poor air quality.
“We see it right now, the smoke season has grown,” Streiff says. “It’s really awful.”
Timberline High school senior Sneha Sharma is afraid she won’t be able to share the riches of Idaho’s outdoors with her future children. She’s already experienced that generational loss. Her family tells stories of their formerly green and bountiful family farm in India, covered in peacocks. But Sharma’s never seen a peacock, or flowing water on the land where, in her lifetime, grandparents struggled to sell crops from dying plants.
“I just don’t want that to happen here in Boise,” Sharma said. “I want to give my kids a chance to experience the beautiful world.”
Students will lead a walkout on Friday at the Idaho State Capitol in solidarity with an international “Fridays for Future” climate strike. Student speeches begin at noon and will stretch through the lunch hour.
Both students are part of Idaho’s Climate Justice League, a youth branch of the Sierra Club active in environmental causes. For the past couple of years, the group has been advocating for the Boise School District’s board of trustees to sign a clean-energy resolution, setting deadlines for a commitment to clean fuel. It’s one of many climate topics Boise students plan to address this Friday, during a student organized walkout in solidarity with a national climate strike.
Chris Taylor, Boise’s supervisor for science and sustainability, says he shares the students’ excitement for clean energy, but that the district isn’t ready to set a deadline until it has long-range plans for achieving energy goals.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to get closer and closer to clean energy,” Taylor said. “I just don’t know about the date.”
Climate Justice League wants clean energy by 2030
The student’s proposed resolution would commit Boise schools to achieving 100% clean electricity by 2030, and clean energy in all sectors (including heating, cooking and transportation) by 2040. Clean energy means that the district’s power would be provided by wind, solar, hydroelectric and other renewable energy sources.
The petition argues that the district would meet a number of goals by making the switch: It would save money, which could then be invested in under-resourced schools; it would help address climate change and have a positive impact on students’ academic success by improving their environment and outlook toward the future.
The Boise City Council set a goal of reaching 100% clean electricity by 2035, students point out.
“Boise schools, they could be a big part of that,” Streiff said. “Unless we actually set precedents for specific groups and organizations, things that are tangible, then that (City of Boise goal) is not going to happen.”
School districts across the country have made similar commitments. The Seattle Public Schools board voted to adopt clean energy by 2040. Salt Lake city schools set 2030 and 2040 clean energy goals nearly identical to what Boise students are proposing. In Batesville, Arkansas, a switch to solar energy and other improvements saved the district $300,000 that it then funneled into teacher pay.
The Boise School District has started to address school energy use, and is seeing financial return from sustainable practices. The district started working with Idaho Power’s Strategic Energy Group four years ago to find ways to save energy in the buildings, Taylor said, an effort that has expanded to 10 of the district’s 50-plus schools. So far the district has saved over 6.5 million kilowatts of energy, and close to $400,000 off of energy bills.
Boise schools plan to keep momentum on sustainability efforts
The primary contention between the Climate Justice League and district officials is one of process.
Boise students want the district to make a firm commitment, now, and work to develop a plan.
The district doesn’t want to commit to a deadline until it has a long-term plan to reach it.
“I think maybe one of their frustrations is that we haven’t done the resolution they’ve handed out to us,” Taylor said. “We want to have all of our ducks in a row… because if we do this, we want to do it 100%.”
Taylor said the district probably won’t adopt the exact wording of the petition. He and the board have been talking instead about a collective commitment for Boise’s schools.
The district hasn’t finalized the potential commitment yet, Taylor said, but he anticipates the plan will prioritize sustainability in long-term investments like renovations and buying new vehicles, and continue to build climate science and sustainability into the district curriculum.
The district is also working with a new program to track and monitor energy use at individual sites, which will inform more specific long-term goals, Taylor said, and building new facilities with the capacity to use solar power.
After years working on the resolution, some of the teens are frustrated that they haven’t made more progress getting in front of board members. District spokesman Ryan Hill said in August that the district’s leadership team would review the student’s resolution at a September meeting, but that the board was not considering adding the resolution to its upcoming agenda.
“It goes back to the common theme of being someone under 18 who can’t vote yet, but is still trying to make stuff happen,” Streiff said. “It’s hard to be taken seriously, even though we’re fighting for our school district, our city, our world.”
Despite any friction with district leadership over deadlines, many of the youth in the Climate Justice League work closely with Taylor, who spearheads the district’s Sustainability Committee. The committee has started youth-led initiatives like power-down efforts on Earth Day, where teachers go outside or avoid using projectors and find other ways to save energy.
“These kids are amazing,” Taylor said. The students, in turn, feel like Taylor and some of their teachers have been sympathetic to their goals.
“Our final step is to get these elected officials on our side,” Sharma said.
Want to hear more? Tune into a virtual conversation with the City Club of Boise on Sept. 28, when Taylor, Rajbhandari, a former Salt Lake City student and Idaho Power Engineer will talk about the push to get The Boise School District to commit to a long-term plan for clean energy. Register for that event here.