By Francis Gilmore
The recent victory on bus idling at the Pierrepont School in Rutherford illustrates the power of parents and families in addressing school health and safety hazards. Buses parked by the school all night idled every morning for about a half hour. After months of discussions between the Rutherford Education Association (REA) and district officials failed to solve the problem, the association decided it was time to enlist families.
When former REA President Tony Bucco addressed the PTA, parents became upset and mobilized through Facebook. They packed the next school board meeting. The board voted to move the buses temporarily to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The board set up a committee that included teachers and parents to find a permanent location.
Every member can contribute to solving a health and safety problem in the building:
All players can work together to enlist parents, families & other allies in the community.
NJEA members are all too aware of health and safety hazards they and students face on a daily basis—poor indoor air quality, malfunctioning or nonfunctioning ventilation systems; mold, dirt, germs and pests; toxic chemicals; vehicle exhaust; buildings in disrepair and temperature extremes. Every day, students and school staff miss school or are less productive because exposures to hazards in the school affect their health.
In some cases, local health and safety committees (HSCs) have had major successes abating hazards, such as water intrusion and mold in Lindenwold and Pine Hill school districts. But other cases benefit from the added strength of allies in the community. Parents and families are natural allies, since their children are subject to school hazards, and are more sensitive than adults to chemical and allergen exposures. The Rutherford case is the most recent of many examples.
NJEA worked with the New Jersey Work Environment Council (NJWEC) to organize the Healthy Schools Now Campaign (HSNC), which brings together educators, union members, families and other stakeholders. The coalition is tackling one of the toughest fights—winning repairs, remediation and new construction in the 31 poorest districts, called SDA districts. These districts are so named for the Schools Development Authority, on which they rely for funding.
This struggle is particularly tough because it pits towns against the Christie administration’s determination to minimize spending on schools.
In the spring of 2013, the HSNC brought together grassroots groups from around the state to protest at SDA meetings. Protesters wanted to know why Gov. Christie refused to use funding already authorized to fix terrible conditions.
A coalition of 43 faith-based, minority, family and union groups signed a letter urging the governor to speed up SDA district repairs. Such pressure undoubtedly contributed to the 2014 release of funds for projects, such as construction of a new Trenton High School and a capital project in New Brunswick. The HSN Coalition now meets quarterly with the SDA to discuss the status of statewide school facilities projects and any concerns related to these SDA projects. The SDA has been responsive to the coalition and many of the SDA districts as a result of organizing efforts. Continued efforts are needed to ensure these commitments are met, and funding is allocated for the many other SDA projects.
Many health and safety issues affect whole communities. These are natural candidates for alliances with families and advocacy groups.
One example is chemical emergencies. Under New Jersey law, schools are required to have safety and security plans, which cover chemical emergencies. Under federal law, municipalities are required to have chemical emergency response plans. The two are supposed to be consistent with each other.
Such plans are critical, given the many dangerous chemical plants and trains carrying chemicals and crude oil through New Jersey communities.
But as the 2012 Paulsboro train derailment and chemical release illustrated, neither plan was up to speed in that community. In response, parents started a state chapter of Moms Clean Air Force, a group that fights air pollution to protect the health of their children. They allied themselves with Clean Water Action, a local advocacy group. Local associations would be natural partners for this alliance.
Imagine the power of a coalition of parent groups, environmental groups, and local associations to address issues of mutual concern to schools and communities all over New Jersey. See Page 11 for information on the Workers’ Memorial Day Rally.