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State grant energizes South Whidbey schools

School district electrician Art Pratt examines a large, high intensity bulb, He admitted he didn
School district electrician Art Pratt examines a large, high intensity bulb, He admitted he didn't know where the bulb would go - a problem that will be solved by the recently awarded state energy efficiency grant.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / Record file

The best possible scenario has come true for the South Whidbey School District after applying for more than $600,000 in state grant funds.

The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction announced Thursday the South Whidbey School District was one of 43 school districts across Washington awarded the funds.

“This will yield about $90,000 in annual savings in energy expenses for the district,” said District Superintendent Jo Moccia in an email.

“This is great news for SWSD.”

In total, South Whidbey schools will receive $685,000 in grant money. Earlier this year, the school district had an energy audit performed by Ameresco Quantum, an energy consultant company based in Renton. Representatives from Ameresco told the school board in early March they discovered the district could save about $90,000 by making cost-efficient improvements, repairs and upgrades to the district’s four main campuses: South Whidbey High School, Langley Middle School, South Whidbey Elementary School and the District Service and Transportation Center. They also estimated cash incentives from Puget Sound Energy worth about $152,000 for upgrades like new, more energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs and light timers. Up-front, the school district will make a  $200,000 down payment from capital funds for the work.

The South Whidbey School District will complete almost $1.8 million in improvements. Moccia said the work will occur over the next six months. Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn, said the $20.9 million grant, divided among the 43 districts, will help create long-term operational savings for the school districts and stimulate construction employment. The grant money came from the state Legislature. Earlier energy grant funding totaled $50 million in 2010 and $16.9 million in 2009.

“There is a very high demand in school districts for these funds,” Dorn said in a release. “The great thing is that these funds not only make students’ lives better in the classroom, they also create well paying jobs across the state. This is truly a winning combination.”

South Whidbey had high hopes it would receive the funds. The main criteria the OSPI was looking for was first-time applicants, for which the school district qualified.

Members of the South Whidbey School Board hoped cutting operational costs  would translate to saving teaching jobs. The school district has projected 70 fewer students, which could mean at least two fewer teachers. The hope of the district’s leaders is that by spending capital funds to reduce operations expenses, those savings can be applied to keep a teacher or two employed.

“We need to start turning capital money into operation money as soon as we can,” said Board Member Fred O’Neal during the March 7 school board meeting.

Among the various projects the school district will undertake to improve its energy costs are new light bulbs and new heating systems. One noticeable example will come in the fall during volleyball season when the old, cone-shaped lights are replaced with fluorescent tubes to brighten the gym. Heating controls will also be replaced at the school for an estimated $286,000, and a new heat pump will be installed in the gym for about $143,000. Langley Middle School is in line for almost $100,000 worth of upgrades to its lighting across the campus, as well as to its boiler controls and locker room heat exchange system.

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