Help for winning healthy schools

Fredon Education Association and Fredon Parents Against the Lines he Fredon Education Association (FEA) and a local community group came together in 2009 when a proposed PSE&G power line project raised concerns about potential radiation exposure to the school community. The small town has just one school, which serves about 300 students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Power lines have run adjacent the school for decades, but the proposal to upgrade the lines was met with strong community resistance.

Early campaign research revealed that even the current power lines next to the school could already have been posing danger. The community group that formed around this concern, Fredon Parents Against the Lines (FredonPALs), approached FEA and presented the evidence. After carefully considering the facts on all sides, including those presented by PSE&G, the FEA leaders decided to support FredonPALs in a campaign to protect the school community from the power lines.

FEA co-presidents Laurie Sanders and Monica Cacciaguida attended every community meeting that PALs called, some of which drew more than 100 parents and community members. FEA also supported PALs’ fund raising and petition efforts. FEA is a small association with just 34 members, but every single one, as well as every other staff person working in the school, totaling about 60, signed the PALs petition.

Sanders explained that PALs members’ concern for the school staff as well as the students was important to her; she appreciated that PALs researched the potential effects of the power lines on pregnant mothers as well as young children, as there were several pregnant teachers in the school.

Of the collaboration, Sanders said, “I think it’s positive for more than just the reason to keep the school safe. I think it’s important to work with a community that cares about the teachers that teach their children.”

The FEA leaders also involved their UniServ representative, John Ropars, for assistance reaching out to local politicians and conducting meetings with PSE&G. Ropars feels the collaboration with Fredon- PALs was beneficial and thinks it is always a good idea for the local association to have good relationships with the community. “There’s never a downside to that for the membership,” Ropars said. “If there are problems in the school district, we’d like the community to be on our side.”

In the end, the collaboration in Fredon paid off. A recent binding agreement with PSE&G holds that the company will move the proposed power lines further from the school and provide $950,000 to the district to relocate the playground so it is further from the lines. Even if expansion of the lines falls through, PSE&G must pay for relocating the playground further from the current lines.

Jersey City Education Association and Communities United for Education The Jersey City Education Association (JCEA) also collaborated in 2008 and 2009 with a local community group around a healthy schools campaign. The community group, Parents and Communities United for Education (PCUE), approached the union for support in a campaign to get the district to implement health and safety “report cards” for each of the 38 schools in Jersey City. The semi-annual report cards cover housekeeping, sanitation, lighting, mold and moisture, ventilation and temperature, pest control, electrical safety, emergency preparedness, and toxic materials. JCEA Executive Board member Roy Tomargo, who handles worksite health and safety complaints for the local, said he appreciates when parent groups focus on health and safety issues because “the board works for the parents, and when the parents bring these types of issues to the board meetings, they get attention.” Tomargo has experience working on such issues. He served on the NJEA Worksite Safety and Health Committee from 2003 to 2009. Tomargo noted that PCUE was effective on a previous campaign around lead in drinking water, and when the group approached JCEA about the report cards, he was happy for JCEA to support the campaign. “Our interests dovetailed so well that it was a natural fit,” he explained. PCUE, like PALs, had broad community support and was able to mobilize 50 to 100 parents and community members for meetings and rallies, but the parent group still faced an uphill battle in trying to get the board to adopt the report cards. Vocal support from JCEA provided a break-through in the campaign, and on Jan. 25, 2009, the board of education agreed to adopt the report cards. Members of the school community participate in collecting the health and safety information in each school.

Why parents make good allies

Local associations have strong health and safety rights, including rights to obtain information from the district and to file a complaint and trigger an inspection by the Public Employee Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) program. Locals also have rights to negotiate contracts and file grievances concerning health and safety problems. Nevertheless, local associations can use all the help they can get when pressuring districts to improve working school conditions. Here are five good reasons why parents can be good allies in the fight for healthy schools:

  • Motivation: Parents are rightfully protective of their children and will fight long and hard to ensure they are safe and healthy.
  • Numbers: There are often 20 times more parents than school staff.
  • Expertise: Many parents have special training in engineering, architecture, medicine, nursing, and construction— expertise that can be put to good use.
  • Power: Parents vote for school boards and budgets.
  • Financial interest: Parents want districts to maintain school facilities properly so they retain their value and do not need expensive remediation projects. They want districts to avoid legal liability for staff and students sickened by school facilities. On this page are the stories of two local associations that made strategic alliances with parents in the struggle for safe and healthy schools—and what they won by building relationships and cultivating unity with parents.

 

Find WEC on Facebook

The New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) is a membership alliance of labor, environmental, and community organizations working for safe, secure jobs and a healthy, sustainable environment. NJEA and WEC frequently work together to ensure healthy and safe schools for students and staff. You can learn much more about WEC and keep up with the latest news in health and safety by becoming a fan of WEC on Facebook. If you’re on Facebook, simply type “NJ Work Environment Council” into the search box to find WEC. If you’re not on Facebook, you can still find WEC online at www.njwec.org.

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