Member spotlight: Q&A with Dan Schnitzer of Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools

Published on: 
11 Sep 2019
Phoebe Beierle

Each month, the Center for Green Schools at USGBC will spotlight a member of our community who is working every day to ensure that students have access to sustainable schools that advance their health and prepare them for 21st century careers.

In September, we profile a member of our School Sustainability Leadership Network, Dan Schnitzer.

Dan Schnitzer, Sustainability Director

Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

How would you describe your role in a few words?

To minimize our district’s negative environmental impact while increasing our positive environmental impact.

How many years have you have been in your current position, and how has your position evolved, relative to sustainability?

With CHCCS, I have been doing this work for five years, and I worked in a similar position in Chicago for six years. My current position has expanded to include building controls; oversight of our grounds and buildings department; oversight of our non-construction capital projects; and supporting teachers, students and administrators with the implementation of environmental education.

Dan Schnitzer speaking to students about sustainability

Dan Schnitzer speaking to students. Photo credit: CHCCS News.

What attracts you to work in sustainability?

I have always found personal peace, clarity and understanding in nature. Initially, this work enabled me to spend time in nature and learning about nature. I still get to do that, and now feel the responsibility of combating climate change as an essential part of my purpose. I also value the opportunity to work with kids, all of whom still have their natural curiosity and see the natural world with wonder and awe.

What is one of the biggest challenges you've faced as a sustainability professional in your district? How have you overcome or worked through it?

Change is hard for people. Coming in and asking people to change their ways of thinking and operating has been a real challenge. People are naturally resistant to change and discomfort, so the default response to “it’s always cold” is to run the heat all night. While this solves the “I’m cold problem,” it brings up an energy use problem.

The challenge is getting people to understand that energy use is also a problem. Once we can mutually agree on what problems we are solving and what goals we are trying to achieve, we can set proper expectations and work toward a common goal. Until then, different departments, trades and individuals are running counter to each other trying to achieve their one goal.

What is the accomplishment of which you are most proud?

We have cut our utility use by 23% in five years and diverted over 1.3 million pounds of compostable waste from the landfill to a compost facility.

Student at CHCCS taking part in an activity, holding carrots

Student at CHCCS taking part in a school activity.

What have you gained from being part of the School Sustainability Leadership Network?

The School District Sustainability Leaders Summit was a fantastic, intensive two-day period where I connected with others about the on-the-ground challenges and successes that we shared. It was a much deeper relationship than the “green schools” commonality.

Is there any advice you would give to future K–12 sustainability professionals?

Keep the students and education front and center. It will help guide decisions.

If you were a kind of tree, what would you be, and why?

A Banyan tree. Seeds of the Banyan tree grow in cracks and crevices of other tree branches. I am the product of those who came before and only grow because of their work, culture and being. A Banyan tree has areal prop roots that become large and indistinguishable from the main trunk. In my work and life, I look to expand my influence and coverage and allow for each expansion to take root as part of the greater entity that is my being.

What is your favorite environmentally themed movie?

Anything by Louie Schwartzberg.

If you were trying to convince someone from your community that green schools matter, what resource, story or program would you point them to that makes the case?

Just go watch kids outside. They are happy. They are in their natural state. Virtually every kid likes to be outside and to dig in the dirt. They have an innate curiosity, sense of wonder and awe for the world. They like to get dirty. They like to discover. Let them.

Learn more about the School Sustainability Leaders Network