School & District Management

District Leaders Exchange Ideas On Ways to Trim Energy Costs

By Christina A. Samuels — November 04, 2008 4 min read
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In school districts’ fight to manage their energy costs, no coffee maker is safe. And neither are microwave ovens and air purifiers.

Cracking down on those small but energy-inefficient devices was just one of many suggestions about 50 superintendents and other district officials heard during a recent “energy summit” sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators.

The two-day gathering that began Oct. 23 was the first “hot topic” seminar sponsored by the Arlington, Va-based AASA. It featured a more freewheeling format than the association’s larger conferences, which typically bring together hundreds or thousands of attendees.

Though prices for gasoline and diesel fuel are dropping after sharp spikes last year, they still remain an issue of top concern for school officials. The cost of cooling, heating, and lighting schools also has taken a toll on many budgets, as has the cost of transporting students to and from schools and athletic events. (“Increasing Fuel Costs Hit Hard,” July 16, 2008.)

A recent AASA survey of school leaders showed that many were focusing on reducing expenses on transportation and utilities, from consolidating bus routes to cutting the school week by one day, as was done in one rural Minnesota district.

Some of the speakers offered insight into what the new Congress might enact for energy policy in 2009. Just a month ago, energy was considered to be one of the top issues in the presidential campaign, said John Cohen, the director of government affairs for the Washington office of URS Corp., an engineering, construction, and technical-services firms.

“Now the price of energy is coming down,” Mr. Cohen said, “but the fundamentals that drove gas prices north have not changed.”

‘Strategic’ Reserves

Mr. Cohen told the district officials to expect a comprehensive energy bill that should include initiatives to promote “green,” or energy-efficient, buildings.

Awards for Conservation

A number of school districts have been recognized by the Energy Star program, part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for their energy-saving efforts.

Council Rock District
Newtown, Pa.

Focused on recommissioning newer buildings and requiring new purchases of Energy Star-qualified products, when possible.

Gresham-Barlow District
Gresham, Ore.

One elementary school saves an average of $800 a month through its “Watt Watchers” program, in which students patrol the school and hand out red tickets for empty classrooms where lights remain on.

Seaford District
Seaford, Del.

Upgraded boilers, installed high-efficiency lighting in the gymnasiums and classrooms, turned off lights in some hallways and restrooms that receive sunlight, and reduced temperatures in classrooms over the winter to between 68 and 70 degrees.

Colorado Springs District 11
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Created a $500,000-a-year incentive program to give money to schools based on student population and measured energy savings.

SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

During another seminar session, school officials gave examples of the ways they were able to pare energy costs.

Rudy Flores, the chief operations officer for the 60,000-student Tucson, Ariz., district, said a quarter of the district’s school bus fleet is using compressed natural gas, but the district has been cautious about making widespread changes because the buses are expensive to maintain after their warranties expire.

Richard Scherza, the superintendent of the 11,000-student Cranston, R.I., district, has hired an energy manager who receives a salary plus bonuses for a certain percentage of energy saved.

The Fairfax County, Va., district has its own “strategic oil reserves,” said William Mutscheller, the director of the office of facilities management for the 168,000-student district. The heating systems in schools were built to burn both oil and natural gas, he noted. The systems usually run on natural gas but with prices high, “we’ve decided to tap that oil,” Mr. Mutscheller said.

He estimated that about $2 million worth of oil was sitting in underground tanks.

All of the administrators cautioned that improving energy efficiency requires changes throughout a school system. Mr. Scherza, for example, said there was some resistance at the school level to a rule prohibiting small appliances.

“Some people were just not taking it seriously,” he said. “We had to tell them, this is a district initiative, and it’s not an option.”

Tweaking Older Systems

Another challenge is trying to retrofit schools that in some cases were built before air conditioning was widely used. Retrofitting the older systems with new, more energy-efficient systems comes at a high price.

Robert Schoch, the director of business administration for the 12,500-student Council Rock district in Newtown, Pa., told attendees during a session that his district, however, managed to save money by optimizing the systems already in place. To do so required some investment, he said, in making sure that even the older systems were working to their highest efficiency.

In one case, Mr. Schoch said, a school’s ventilation system had motors running around the clock because some processors weren’t responding to thermostats.

Making those repairs, he said, means that buildings that once had variations of 10 degrees in different rooms are now maintained at a uniform temperature level, which saves the district money.

The Council Rock district was honored by Energy Star, a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for its energy-saving efforts.

David K. Pennington, a conference attendee and the superintendent of the 5,200-student Ponca City, Okla., district, said in an interview that his school system was already involved in projects to retrofit lighting and replace windows.

“We’re doing a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do them better,” Mr. Pennington said.

Cheryl K. Crawley, the superintendent of the 10,500-student Great Falls, Mont., district, said she’s not so sure that she’ll be going after her teachers’ appliances.

“We want to create an environment where our people want to work. I am reluctant to take away any of their creature comforts,” Ms. Crawley said.

Mr. Scherza, the superintendent of the Rhode Island district that did ban such appliances, said in an interview that he understood that reluctance.

“We have to be cautious not to look at it through just one frame,” he said. “We can’t just think with our wallets.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as District Leaders Exchange Ideas On Ways to Trim Energy Costs

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