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Oct 032011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

President Obama’s green schools plan contained in the American Jobs Act would help school districts retrofit buildings to make them more energy efficient and more livable for tens of thousands of school children.

Cedar Ridge High School in Round Rock, Texas, is LEED certified. Architects: Perkins+Will (Photo: Charles Davis Smith)

The proposed $25 billion investment could assist as many as 35,000 schools by funding new heating and cooling systems, windows improvements and other green features that reduce energy use, according to the plan.

As a jobs generator, the proposal is designed to do double duty: It would create construction work quickly because many schools already have renovation plans on the drawing board, and it would free up money that could be redirected toward teacher jobs.

The jobs could be permanent — unlike some temporary direct funding of jobs elsewhere in the bill — because the money spent on energy efficiency would bring the enduring benefit of lower electricity costs for school districts.

The icing on the cake: A better work and learning environment for teachers and students.

“My feeling is that this should absolutely be a no-brainer,” says Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools at the US Green Building Council. “Historically there’ve been some that believe that school district improvements should be a local conversation not a federal one.  I think we all understand that right now America is in a position where the localities cannot do this alone. So having more money that flows from the state to the very underfunded school districts is simply what it’s going to take for our schools to be healthy, more efficient places to inspire learning for our children.”

To some, the green schools plan is the infrastructure equivalent of apple pie, a comfort for everyone from those looking to provide jobs to educators and parents concerned about aging buildings. But it has critics. On the left, some have said the AJA, though not necessarily the green schools component, is far too small to jolt America’s slumbering economy.

On the right, critics have questioned whether this is the appropriate time to spend the money and some have asked whether repairing schools really makes a big difference for children.

Gutter says green upgrades do improve lives for staff, and especially for kids, who are more likely to stay in school and stay on task academically in a comfortable environment. She says that even operational changes, and certainly systems improvements, save kids from rooms that bake in the winter or freeze in the warm months because old boiler or HVAC systems are breaking down. Aging construction, she says,  is “sending energy dollars out the window”.

Tarkington School of Excellence in Chicago (Photo: Chicago school district)

Ms. Gutter, whose program at the non-profit USGBC advises districts on how to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design) certification for schools, rejects the notion that fixing schools would be an expense extra the country cannot afford.

Modernized schools are not a “nice to have,” but a must-have, she says, noting that The American Federation of Teachers has estimated that $250 billion is needed to restore schools to working order.

Obama pounded the podium for the American Jobs Act in states across the country during September and is now calling for a Congressional showdown. Back in Washington today, the president reiterated that he wants action on the jobs bill in Congress and he invited Democrats and Republicans, who’ve thwarted the president’s proposals since winning a majority in the House of Representatives last year, to take up the measure or pick out the parts of the bill they like.

“My expectation is that now that we are in the month of October, that we will schedule a vote before the end of this month,” he said in a news conference.

Congress has not been friendly toward spending bills since concern about the rising federal deficit began to dominate the dialogue in D.C.. The reluctance to spend on schools tracks back even to 2008, in some instances. According to this piece in USA Today Congress had concerns about spending money on schools in 2008.

And yet,  schools that have been brought up to green standards recover upfront costs with energy savings. Even with minimal systems revisions and affordable operational changes that train occupants to use energy more wisely,  schools are saving 25 to 40 percent on their energy costs, Gutter said.

The USGBC enlisted Rep. Ben Chandler, D-KTY, to vouch for those returns. In September, he helped the non-profit building council publicize the story of Rosa Parks Elementary in Lexington, which saved $52,000 in energy costs last year through green changes.

“High performance schools are truly the future of education, especially in these tough economic times,” Chandler said. By saving money on electric bills and instead investing in education, we’re giving our children a leg up on their future.”

Already communities from Maine to California have built or retrofitted hundreds of school to green standards. And 700 schools in various stages of planning and construction have applied for green (LEED) certification through the USGBC’s green schools program. That list includes schools that are fully funded and will move forward, but also some that may stall in the current slow economy.

The American Jobs Act would not fund new schools construction, but it would finance major systems upgrades at existing schools, which could help them install new heating/cooling systems, energy efficient windows and improve school structures in other ways.

To see how schools are improving with green technology, we took a closer look at several around the country. District spokespersons and energy experts said they satisfied on several counts. They praised the improved learning environment; the much reduced energy costs, which in some cases surprised even planners and the water savings.

  • Get information on how to put your school district in line for more energy efficient schools.

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