For school officials, a new calculus

Stimulus funds spark efforts to save energy

Mark Fortman, assistant director of building and grounds, said he can control the heating systems in any building in School District 197 from his office in Mendota Heights, Minn.. Mark Fortman, assistant director of building and grounds, said he can control the heating systems in any building in School District 197 from his office in Mendota Heights, Minn.. (craig lassig/associated press)
By Elizabeth Dunbar
Associated Press / April 6, 2009
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MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. - The candy machine at Henry Sibley High School knows when students roam the halls and automatically powers down when they've gone home. The basketball court still shines, but under the glow of fluorescent tubes that suck up much less of the juice the old lights used.

Thanks to such measures, energy costs across the school district in this Twin Cities suburb already are down by nearly a third. Officials want to trim the expenses even more, but that will require investment in upgrades.

The federal economic stimulus dollars could be just what they need. Some of the billions of dollars trickling down from Washington will be used to make public buildings more energy efficient. School officials hope long-term savings can sprout from those one-time upgrades - the types of projects that get shoved aside when budgets are squeezed and tax levies fail.

"The money we spend on electric, water, gas and oil - those dollars compete with dollars for textbooks and teachers," said Jay Haugen, superintendent of the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district.

The economic stimulus package contains $6.3 billion for state and local governments to make energy usage more efficient, including in public buildings. Schools are eligible for some of that - in addition to a $22 billion zero-interest bond program for school construction projects created in the recovery package. Nationwide, there are roughly 80,000 public school buildings.

State governments know how much money they'll receive, but details about how it will get from Washington to Main Street schools haven't been worked out. Schools in many states will have to compete with other public buildings for energy dollars, and in most cases projects will require local matching funds.

Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, said the conversation about how best to spend the money is just getting started, and it will probably play out differently in each state. But he expects schools to be in a prime position to snag dollars for simple things, such as new light bulbs, and for such pricier projects as more efficient furnaces and new roofs.

School officials in Idaho are batting around ideas for spending up to $24 million of the energy money on projects focusing on schools. Paul Kjellander, administrator of the state's Office of Energy Resources, said a sizable chunk could be used to install solar panels on school buildings.

Boise school leaders want to tap into the pot to rid their buildings of drafty windows, power-wasting lighting, and inefficient heating and cooling systems. Savings could be critical for a district about to lay off 122 full- and part-time teachers.

People who track school improvement projects say many schools have done what they can to conserve energy, such as unplugging computers at night.

"That only takes you so far," said Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Now, Marks said, schools that "had the will but not the way" to make more expensive upgrades could with federal help.

In the Mendota Heights district, Haugen said officials will look to the stimulus money to fund the next steps on energy efficiency, such as increasing the number of classrooms equipped with sensors to shut off lights if there's no movement or sound.

Half the district's classrooms have automated lighting, and the high school has two new high-efficiency condensing boilers. The efficiency upgrades the district has already made are saving the district $100 per pupil, or about $500,000 a year.

"Take that across the whole state and that's quite a lot," Haugen said.