Referendum 52, up for a vote in Washington this fall, would help schools across the state take care of a backlog of basic maintenance projects—making school buildings safer, healthier places to learn, while cutting down on energy bills so that more money can stay in the classroom. This blog series showcases the innovative energy efficiency projects already taken by school districts—highlighting the incredible potential for R-52 to save on school utility bills, create better learning environments for students, and create construction jobs all across the state.

When budgets get cut (and cut, and cut), the Vancouver School District in southwestern Washington does everything it can to protect direct services to students; things like teachers and classroom programs. Maintenance and operations budgets often take a hard hit.

By necessity, the maintenance team is a resourceful bunch, always on the lookout for ways to extend the life of their buildings. To keep boilers and HVAC systems running, for example, facilities managers trade used parts throughout the district, making sure nothing goes to waste. But they’re stretching these stop-gap fixes to the breaking point. Real repairs can’t wait forever.

jason lee roof - with permissionTake, for example, the roof at Vancouver’s Jason Lee Middle School. For years, the school’s maintenance team has been patching the aging roof, wringing every last drop of life out of it. But the insulation is wet, and missing entirely in spots. It’s time for a new roof, and money for major repairs is in short supply.

Luckily, the district found some help to finance a new roof. Energy Trust of Oregon partnered with Northwest Natural Gas in Oregon to identify a $30,000 rebate that would help pay for insulation. They expect the project to knock 20 percent off of the building’s annual energy costs.

That’s just one example of how the district is looking for creative ways to save money on energy bills. A few years ago, the Vancouver facilities team recognized the enormous potential for energy efficiency projects to cut utility bills. Enthusiasm for efficiency grew among maintenance and operations employees. Eventually, the school board went even further and approved a district-wide policy on natural resource conservation.

Then, a few employees of the district joined up with Washington’s Green Teams program, creating a plan in each school to make energy efficiency upgrades while helping raise awareness about conservation and energy issues among students and teachers. By combining behind-the-scenes efforts—like replacing old lighting fixtures with more energy efficient ones—and awareness-raising activities in the classroom, they were able to spread their enthusiasm across the district. Ultimately, the district set a goal of reducing energy consumption by 5 percent in all buildings for three consecutive years, for a total reduction in energy use of 15 percent.

“We went to schools with ideas that work,” said Jennifer Halleck, the facilities planner for the district and a founder of the green team. Fourteen of the district’s 33 schools are already Energy Star approved, and they want to include the other 19.

But raising awareness in schools and enacting in-house conservation efforts by maintenance teams can only get them so far. “We’re really taking a look at potential energy projects: what rebates and grants are available, and aligning them with our major maintenance needs,” said Halleck. The district has already undergone investment-grade audits to determine which large projects give the best bang for the buck.

The Jason Lee Middle School roof is just one of about a dozen projects the district has identified where the long-term energy savings justify the upfront expenses. Other projects include replacements for boilers at the end of their lifecycles, district-wide lighting upgrades, and a heat recovery system for their water systems.

But even though these projects would save money in the long run, there’s little money available to pay for the short-term costs. Grants from the Washington Department of Commerce and OSPI could help, but the funds are already stretched thin. OSPI and DOC had $100 million in school efficiency grants to hand out statewide in 2010, and the competition was fierce. DOC has already allocated their $50 million, and OSPI’s last round of applications closes tomorrow. Despite these grants, high competition means that many smart, money-saving school energy efficiency projects can’t even get off the ground.

In November, voters have the chance to approve $500 million more to projects like those in Vancouver. Referendum 52 would help provide up-front financing that school districts need to take on the most cost-effective energy retrofits. The potential benefits are huge. Efficiency retrofits can create thousands of new construction jobs across in the state, while simultaneously cutting utility bills and extending the life of existing building. That means more money to devote to classrooms, and in many cases, a more comfortable and better-lit environment for students. Every school district—not just those ahead of the curve like Vancouver—could benefit, bringing new jobs to every community in Washington.

You don’t need an economics class to see that R-52 makes dollars and sense.

Photo of Jason Lee Middle School’s roofing project used with permission from the Vancouver School District.