Students holding signs urging climate action
Environmental youth advocates at the Portland Public Schools board meeting Tuesday night. Isabella Garcia

Students and environmental advocates urged Portland Public Schools (PPS) board members to advance the district’s proposed climate change response policy to a board vote at a school board meeting Tuesday. The student advocates are fearful the climate policy will only continue to be weakened and never be put into action if board members don’t vote on the policy soon.

“As a young climate advocate, I’m pretty sick of viewing PPS as the opposition,” said Adah Crandall, a Sunrise Movement PDX member and Grant High School student, addressing the board Tuesday night. “I would like to view you as an ally in this fight.”

PPS’s Climate Crisis Response Policy is intended to set the school district’s climate-related goals by addressing carbon emission reductions and integrating climate justice education into the district’s curriculum. The draft policy, written collaboratively with district staff and environmental advocates over the past two years, is now on its 25th iteration—dubbing it “Version 25.” The current draft includes eleven goals with over 50 sub-recommendations that detail how the district could achieve those goals. While PPS has created a Climate Justice department to advise climate-related curriculum and started energy-efficiency projects, this policy is the first time the district has planned to set official carbon emission reduction targets.

For example, the climate policy would give the district until 2030 to reduce its carbon emissions by 50 percent from 2018-2019 school year levels. The policy then details how the district could reduce its carbon emissions by incentivizing students to walk, bike, or use public transit to get to school, transitioning to an all-electric bus fleet, planting carbon-sequestering plants on school grounds, and phasing out gas-powered equipment in all PPS buildings by 2050.

According to Amy Higgs, executive director of the parent and student environmental advocacy group Eco-School Network, climate activists involved in the policy’s creation were excited by the progress that had been made over the past two years, as well as the climate-conscious goals that PPS would set if the policy is adopted.

“It was all going really well until the last policy meeting,” Higgs said.

During a policy committee meeting last month, PPS staff proposed a shorter, less detailed version of the climate response policy. The proposed edits, which would reduce the four-page policy to two pages, compacted the 66 goals and recommendations into twelve overarching environmental goals.

While the proposed cuts maintain the district’s general goals of reducing emissions and supporting students through future climate change-induced crises, the policy lost several of its initial goals. For example, the simpler version of the policy proposed by PPS staff cuts the district’s commitment to maximize the efficiency of its fuel and water use, consult with labor rights organizations to ensure PPS buildings are safe to work in during heatwaves or severe wildfire smoke, and divest banking investments from fossil fuel industries.

Youth climate advocates believe the proposed cuts to the policy water down the district’s environmental goals.

“We do not have a long time before our planet is devastated by [the effects of climate change],” said Danny Cage, a Grant High School student who sits on the district policy committee. “My plea is that we hear from our students today, recognize what is happening in the room, and our fellow policy committee members intake that and rethink the draft revisions.”

Mike Rosen, a member of PPS’s Climate Justice Committee who co-authored the original climate policy, believes the future of the policy and PPS’s climate-conscious commitments are at a key turning point. Without the school board’s action to move the more detailed version of the policy towards a vote, Rosen is concerned the policy—and PPS’s climate goals—will wither in committee.

“The community has spoken clearly: the policy needs to stay specific, timely, and robust,” Rosen said. “Version 25 does this, and the proposed staff rollbacks undermine two years of hard work.”

“It is not an overly detailed policy,” Higgs added during the meeting’s public comment section. “It’s a big policy because it’s a big problem.”

PPS board member Julia Brim-Edwards, who serves as chair of the policy committee, said the committee will discuss PPS staff’s proposed amendments during its December and January meetings. While Brim-Edwards is open to cutting redundant language in the policy, she is skeptical of “major deletions” suggested by PPS staff.

“I'm not inclined to support many of [the proposed changes],” Brim-Edwards said. “I expect that student voice in this one will be important in the conversation because unlike some of our other policies that are more administrative or not dealing with things that are super relevant to the student experience, that's not the case with this.”

Jackson Weinberg, the PPS Board student representative who also sits on the district policy committee, supported moving the policy forward to a vote during his regular student report to the board.

“I appreciate the thoroughness of this policy, but at some point we continue to rehash the same questions,” Weinberg said. “Our students and future students can’t wait any longer.”