July 27, 2016 (San Diego) The San Diego Unified School District’s (SDUSD) Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution last night calling on the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (STRS) and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) to divest their investment portfolios of stocks in fossil fuel companies. Recognizing the threat of global warming, the resolution also supports last year’s state legislation, SB 185, which requires PERS and STRS to divest from coal stocks. Most of SDUSD’s employees belong to these huge retirement systems.
Proponents believe San Diego Unified is the first school district in California to pass such a resolution, joining the California Federation of Teachers, the Unified Teachers of Los Angeles, and other organizations who have publicly called on CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from fossil fuel companies. San Diego Unified serves more than 130,000 students in pre-school through grade 12, has over 13,000 employees (including nearly 6,000 teachers), and is the second largest district in California.
The resolution is a sign of growing momentum for fossil fuel divestment locally – only a couple of months ago the UC San Diego Academic Senate passed a similar resolution urging the UC Regents to divest the University of California’s investment portfolio of stocks in fossil fuel companies. The UC system also made the decision to divest from coal and tar sands in 2015, and earlier this month CalSTRS voted unanimously to move $2.5 billion in assets to a low-carbon index fund.
A report last year showed that PERS and STRS had lost $840M from coal stocks during the 2014-15 fiscal year, and $5.1B in fossil fuel stocks overall.
Board member Kevin Beiser, who co-authored the resolution, said “I am grateful that San Diego Unified has been a leader in sustainability. Climate science tells us that we must act now to prevent future disasters, and as teachers and staff who devote ourselves to improving the lives of students, we have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to protect them from the impacts of climate change.”
Joe Wainio, a fourth grade teacher at Horton Elementary school and a member of the board of directors of the teacher’s union San Diego Education Association* said he had concluded that divestment is the safer course financially, especially given the calculations of climate scientists (including UCSD scientists) demonstrating that fossil fuel assets cannot be burned if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided. He said “I support divestment because coal, oil and gas stock prices have been plummeting, and have already lost PERS and STRS millions – and these investments will decline even more as we transition to clean energy.”
Masada Disenhouse, a steering committee member of the grassroots climate action organization SanDiego350 applauded the vote, saying “Climate change is one of the most pressing issues for this generation of students and future ones, so I am grateful to the San Diego Unified School Board for standing by the students and their families, and calling for divestment. I hope the retirement systems act quickly to divest their holdings from fossil fuels.”
School Board member Richard Barrera said that it was important for the board to show moral leadership. “There is a question of justice about divesting our retirement funds from fossil fuel companies: most greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have come from the wealthy people in the world, but the worst consequences — such as hurricanes, droughts, fires, flooding, famine and disease — will most severely impact the world’s poorest people. We have a moral duty to our fellow humans, as well as future generations, to act now while we still have a chance to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.”
Prof. Eric Halgren, who led the recent Fossil Free UCSD effort to bring the recent Academic Senate resolution to a successful faculty vote in May, and who is the father of two recent graduates of SDUSD schools, was encouraged. “We must build a global consensus behind becoming fossil free in the next 20 years if we want to avoid flooding major cities, massive famines, and mass extinctions. It was scientists at UCSD who discovered that fossil fuel burning is causing climate change and needs to end. This means that fossil fuel stocks are overpriced. I’m excited that the San Diego Unified School District is taking steps to protect its employees’ retirement investments and our children’s future.”
Kevin Beiser added, “This divestment campaign is about helping people to realize that keeping carbon in the ground is both a moral imperative and makes good economic sense. I hope that CalPERS and CalSTRS take a leadership role in building the essential societal consensus for a fossil free future.”