Schools say energy policy leaves them in dark
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Some Hawaii public schools are complaining that a new energy program that charges them money for exceeding electricity budgets penalizes campuses expanding services or adding technology.
Launched in the last academic year, the School Energy Conservation Program requires a school surpassing its three-year average hourly kilowatt usage to pay for half the amount it goes over. In turn, a school lowering energy expenses will get a check worth half the savings.
But Kawananakoa Middle School Principal Sandra Ishihara-Shibata said the program fails to adjust a school's energy baseline if it adds computers or provides longer operating hours. Her school owes the state Department of Education about $5,000 for going over its energy budget.
"There should be some adjustment in the electrical allocation because we are adding more programs and it's all for student achievement," she said. "That's what we are striving for."
The department, which has historically covered schools' electric tabs regardless of amount, hopes the initiative will help remind administrators, teachers, students and staff to turn off lights, computers and printers and shift to energy-efficient appliances.
Education Department Assistant Superintendent Randy Moore said the program makes schools responsible for costs of appliances or computers they buy.
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At Kawananakoa Middle School, the lights inside Principal Sandra Ishihara-Shibata's office are turned off, and her air conditioner is no longer humming. Her windows are open to let in the tradewinds and sunlight.
The bill to power Hawaii's public schools has nearly doubled in five years as more electricity is used at a higher cost.
|| Average price
|| 138.6 million
|| $22.2 million
|| 144.2 million
|| $25.7 million
|| 145.9 million
|| $31.1 million
|| 149.4 million
|| $32.2 million
|| 147.3 million
|| $38 million
Source: Hawaii Education Department
It's an effort to lower energy use at the campus, which owes the state Department of Education $5,000 for exceeding its electricity budget last year.
The fee is among thousands of dollars being charged to isle schools under a program launched last year that also gives rebates to dozens of campuses that lowered energy consumption.
But some educators argue the program discourages and penalizes schools offering after-hour classes or more computers. Their key complaint is that the Education Department fails to consider the costs associated with expanded services or technology.
Robert Eggleston, principal of Aliamanu Middle School, said he has had air conditioners installed in about 16 classrooms, while a shop room is being converted into a 3,000-square-foot library (three times bigger than the previous library) with some state money but largely with the help of volunteers and fundraisers.
When the last school year ended, the Education Department sent him a $10,000 energy invoice. Eggleston - like principals from some 50 schools - has not yet made the payment, hoping the Education Department will review the tab to account for all the additions at his campus.
"All of these improvements that I mentioned benefits our students and staff and require more electricity," he told the Board of Education on Thursday. "You ask us to improve our services to the students of Hawaii, we do, and in return for our efforts, funds will be taken away from us?"
Education Department Assistant Superintendent Randy Moore said schools' energy budgets are adjusted for electrical changes from new classrooms, buildings or air conditioning as long as they were paid for by the department. But he said schools are responsible for costs of appliances or computers they bring in.
Schools, he added, should be particularly careful when accepting donations such as old refrigerators that become energy hogs.
"It's sort of like giving the school a Hummer," Moore said. "It's a wonderful gift, but who is going to buy the gas?"
He noted the Education Department spent $38 million in electricity last school year, a bill nearly twice as high as five years ago. And he said Gov. Linda Lingle won't allow the Education Department to seek an emergency appropriation to pay for the escalating costs because of Hawaii's slowing economy.
The idea for the energy program came from Act 96, which Lingle signed in 2006. It called for state agencies to "lead by example" and counter rising electrical costs by moving toward alternative fuel use and energy efficiency.
After the first semester of the 2007-08 school year, when the program took effect, 98 principals were faced with bills ranging from $59 to almost $24,000. And 84 schools stood to get rebates worth between $2 to more than $14,000.
Moore said the program was created to help school staff, students and eventually, parents, embrace energy conservation and collect money to better their curriculum. He pointed to energy-saving schools as evidence it can work.
"Every school is doing things differently, every school has more computers," Moore said. "But if all we ever do is say, 'You got a new program, here's more electricity for it,' we will never reduce our electricity consumption."
Some school board members are concerned about educators' ability to stay within their budgets and keep up with technology demands.
"You might as a well close the school because essentially what you are doing is you are putting them into a dark age," said school board Chairwoman Donna Ikeda.
Board member Maggie Cox criticized the Education Department for not adjusting Kawananakoa's electric average for energy costs the school said it incurred from offering classes after school, during intersessions, on weekends and holidays through a federally funded program to prevent pregnancies, tobacco and alcohol use.
"They are doing extra things for kids that we have, all of us and you also, have encouraged them to do," she told Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto on Thursday. "So to me, to just say that it doesn't meet the criteria for adjustment, I have a problem with it."
Hamamoto said schools will have to prioritize their expenses, perhaps by reducing professional development days or buying fewer lab materials, to avoid the electrical overage.
"We know that as electricity and the costs of fuel goes up, we are going to have to take a look at our overall budget anyway," she said. "I think it became a lot of balance."