Sonoma County teachers press pension fund to back away from fossil fuels
North Coast educators are on the forefront of a bid to persuade the powerful California Teachers Association to pressure the statewide teachers’ pension fund to divest more than $6 billion in fossil fuel holdings.
They’re not alone in their support of a campaign to align the state’s largest teachers union with a growing number of domestic and international institutions that are pulling financial stakes from oil and gas companies as climate change accelerates. Similar efforts are underway around California.
But the Sonoma County Educators Council, which represents 34 local CTA chapters and about 3,200 members, last month became the first countywide leadership group to vote formally in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Ten days later, members of the Redwood Region Service Center Council, which represents teachers from the North Bay up the coast to Oregon, followed suit.
Among those leading the charge is Park Guthrie, a sixth-grade teacher at Salmon Creek School in Occidental who co-founded Schools for Climate Action. He is also a veteran proponent of socially and environmentally thoughtful investment of more than $312 billion managed by the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, or CalSTRS, and has argued in favor of divestment for many years.
Like others in the movement, Guthrie argues that enriching teacher pensions at the cost of environmental harm contradicts teacher values that support healthy students, families and communities — especially when it comes to people of color or those who are economically disadvantaged and most likely to suffer the brunt of climate impacts.
“I feel like I’m answerable to my students,” said longtime environmental activist Sunny Galbraith, a chemistry and independent study teacher at Sebastopol’s Orchard View School who has been working on the campaign with Guthrie. “Like my students are kind of aghast at what’s happening in the world and at the adults in their lives and in government and in higher-up structures, and inaction in the climate disaster.
“It’s just unconscionable to me that in this profession — that we are very much in it for healing children and helping young adults — that our earnings are funding the demise of our children’s future,” Galbraith said.
Proponents say the economics of divestment also make sense — that studies not only show comparable or superior gains through fossil-free investing, but the increasingly rapid move away from what Guthrie calls “a sector in terminal decline” means those left holding oil and gas stocks risk drastic losses in the end.
They cite a 2019 study by Corporate Knights, a Toronto-based media firm, that concluded CalSTRS missed out on $5.5 billion it could have generated over the previous 10 years had it excluded fossil fuel companies from its portfolio.
The rapid retreat from oil and gas interests means those investments are likely to continue losing value, and fast, divestment advocates say, until someone is left holding the bag — an empty one.
The decision last month by Europe’s largest pension fund, the Dutch ABP, which serves government and education employees in the Netherlands, to dump $17.4 billion in fossil-fuel assets by early 2023 brings the value of global institutional divestment pledges to $39.88 trillion, according to 350.org.
“Not only is it the morally right thing to do for the climate and the Earth,” said Tiffany Kampmann, a third-grade teacher at Taylor Mountain Elementary School in south Santa Rosa’s Bellevue Union School District. “But it’s the financially sound thing to do. Oil and gas stocks are falling.
“The sooner we divest, the less of a hit we’ll tall take — CalSTRS, that is. The longer we wait, the more we lose, is what it looks like. I don’t know what people have against it,” Kampmann said.
The challenge is significant, however.
The teachers union represents 310,000 public school and community college teachers of varying interests and political persuasions from around California who have been told for years that they risk too much if they let environmentalism dictate investment strategy. Its active and retired members make up the majority of CalSTRS’ members, along with those from the smaller California Federation of Teachers and certificated school administrators from around the state.
The CTA is also not synonymous with CalSTRS, an independent, century-old agency developed to secure teacher pensions.
Jerry Eaton, a Fairfield high school teacher and former financial adviser who serves as CTA director for the nine-county district that includes Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt, Solano, San Francisco and Del Norte counties, said he wasn’t convinced CalSTRS would be swayed by sentiment among the teachers association.
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