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UFT joins unions in solar power campaign

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Solar panels on a rooftop
Erica Berger

Unions are urging lawmakers to earmark funding to retrofit city schools for rooftop solar panels similar to these at PS 62 on Staten Island.

The UFT, along with other unions, launched a campaign on April 21 to increase energy efficiency in New York City public schools through solar power and equipment upgrades.

The campaign is urging federal and local lawmakers to earmark funding to retrofit city schools for rooftop solar panels and other energy-efficient upgrades as part of an infrastructure spending package sought by the Biden administration and congressional leadership.

“There’s an amazing opportunity here,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a recorded address during the campaign’s kickoff event. “If you’re going to do maybe the biggest infrastructure project since at least the Great Depression, then how do we connect our schools and make them part of it?”

Representatives from the UFT, the New York City Central Labor Council, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ and other unions gathered on Zoom to announce the effort, called the Campaign for Carbon Free and Healthy Schools.

The initiative would upgrade antiquated heating and cooling systems and use rooftops to generate solar power to increase schools’ energy efficiency. The coalition envisions the cost savings generated by solar power translating into more funding for classrooms and building maintenance.

Gary LaBarbera, the president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said solar and energy-efficient retrofits to schools would create jobs while ameliorating the climate crisis.

“We can save more than 75,000 tons of carbon emissions every year,” he said. "We can create thousands of good union jobs.”

Seanelle Leesang, a science teacher at IS 68 in Brooklyn who participated in the event, said bringing solar power to schools would help showcase for school communities the value of sustainability.

“Schools play an important role in educating students and the community at large about the importance of caring for the environment,” Leesang said. “We have the potential to have an even greater impact by utilizing school rooftops to generate electricity through the installation of clean, renewable solar-power technology.”

That impact could be lifelong, said Annemarie Summa Barbarino, a UFT chapter leader and physical education teacher at PS 62 on Staten Island.

“Immersing our students in sustainability from such a young age encourages them to become good stewards of the environment,” Barbarino said.