Savvy school administrators know that every dollar spent on energy means one dollar less that’s available for the classroom. The Aberdeen School District in southwestern Washington state learned this lesson years ago.

Since the mid-1990s, they’ve worked with firms such as Quantum Engineering to find opportunities to make buildings more efficient, cut costs, and take care of needed building repairs—all in order to make schools better, healthier places to learn.

“Philosophically, we should say it’s better for the planet,” said Tom Laufmann, the district’s business manager, “But it’s about the money. We’re so short on money anyway, we don’t want to pay any more on utility bills than we have to.”

And they keep finding new ways to trim energy costs. A few years back they converted one 98,000 sq. ft. school from electric heating to a natural gas boiler. Just last summer they retrofitted most of their gyms with more efficient lighting.

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  • “If you look at our utility usage over time, it’s dropped pretty dramatically because of many of the upgrades we’ve been doing,” said Laufmann.

    The numbers agree. Before the boiler project, heating costs ranged from $110,000 to $120,000 per year. Now, they come closer to $80,000, meaning the district will save well over $30,000 a year in energy spending, after factoring in rate changes.

    But the benefits of energy retrofits extend beyond school budgets; they also create a better learning environment for kids. “Better lighting is critical. Studies show good lighting will improve student achievement. The difference in lighting is pretty dramatic,” said Laufmann, referring to the new lights in the gym. The old lights took 20 minutes to warm up, whereas the new ones are instant—giving teachers, coaches, and maintenance crews much more control over when and where energy is being used.

    Laufmann noted the school district has paid for about 80 percent of its energy upgrades out of its capital budget, with some costs supplemented by utility rebates. But that’s changing. Aberdeen recently got $160,000 from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, part of a $100 million funding package created by the state legislature for energy efficiency projects in public schools. Aberdeen will use the money to install a new, high-efficiency propane boiler in Central Park Elementary, and they’ll finish upgrading gymnasium lights from inefficient magnetic-ballast systems to newer electric ones throughout the district.

    This month, Aberdeen is applying for another grant from the Washington Department of Commerce to pay for major water retrofits in several buildings, and to insulate non-academic buildings such as the maintenance office.

    Aberdeen is a great example of a district that realized the benefits of energy efficiency years ago. Other school districts would love to follow Aberdeen’s lead—but at a time of pinched school budgets, many schools can’t afford the up-front costs of an efficiency project, even if they’ll recoup the money down the road. That’s where Washington’s Referendum 52, up for voter approval this fall, comes in.

    R-52 would authorize half a billion dollars for energy efficiency upgrades in schools throughout the state, allowing more school districts to make the kinds of energy efficiency upgrades that Aberdeen has pursued. School districts would be able to put the energy savings back to work in the classroom. And the retrofit projects will create local construction jobs throughout the state—boosting employment in one of the sectors that’s been hardest hit by the economic downturn.

    Want to learn more about this ballot measure? Read the rest of our blog series on how R-52 is a win-win-win for schools, jobs, and the environment.