When the air conditioning system at Ferndale Elementary School in Milton-Freewater gave out in Spring 2011, students spent the remaining school year and part of the next in sweltering classrooms.
In a tough spot, the Milton-Freewater School Board turned to Cool Schools, a program championed by Gov. John Kitzhaber to provide school districts with low-interest loans to improve energy efficiency. In October 2011, the board agreed to borrow $163,000 from the program for a new air conditioner at Ferndale Elementary and a new heat pump at Central Middle School, said Interim Superintendent Jim Reger.
Cool Schools came through in a pinch, but few school districts in Oregon take advantage of the program, said a school administrator who works on building projects statewide.
Tough economic times mean school boards are looking to cut back, not take on debt. Only in the cases of necessity, like Milton-Freewater’s, are schools taking advantage of the program, said David McKay, facility services director with Willamette Education Service District.
“We are in extremely difficult economic times,” said McKay on Wednesday.
McKay, who has worked on building projects for 93 districts in the state, and many in Eastern Oregon, said school districts are making tough decisions, including cutting school days or staff layoffs.
“At the same time you want to ask (school) boards to borrow money to do energy conservation?” McKay said. “Even though it makes big sense to do it, they’re just not doing it.”
When the air conditioning quit at Ferndale, teachers opened doors and installed fans to move as much air through the building as possible.
In November 2011, not long after the board borrowed from the State Energy Loan Program, a Cool Schools loan source, the heat pump in the sixth-grade wing of Centeral Middle School also quit.
The loan was expected to pay for Ferndale’s air conditioning and a lighting retrofit in the same building. The school board instead agreed to stretch the loan across the heating and air conditioning repairs.
The loan paid first for a new, $32,000 heat pump at Central, 306 S.W. Second Ave., installed by Thanksgiving, and then for the $87,000 air conditioning system at Ferndale, 53445 W. Ferndale Road, which Reger expects to complete by May 1.
The district hired Thews Sheet Metal, of Pendleton, to make the repairs at Central. Apollo Sheet Metal, of Kennewick, Wash., was hired for the Ferndale job.
Roger Weiler, the district facilities manager, discovered the Cool Schools program, Reger said. He said Weiler also saved the lighting retrofit.
A Pacific Power and Light surcharge rebate covered the lighting project cost. The district hired Walla Walla Electric to complete the work for a little less than $30,000.
Reger in November 2011 and again Tuesday commended Weiler’s work to the school board.
McKay, who coordinated oversight of Milton-Freewater’s Cool Schools projects, said:
“The only districts using Cool Schools and taking out SELP loans are districts that are in catastrophic failure, like Milton-Freewater was.”
Of the 15 projects McKay is working on now, three are using the Cool Schools program or SELP loans. Others are using voter-passed bonds or general fund dollars, which are also tough sells.
Many Eastern Oregon school buildings and equipment are 50 years old or older, McKay said. Milton-Freewater is home to two of the three oldest school buildings in the state. One, a building at Central Middle School, dates back to 1909. The newest section of Ferndale Elementary was built in 1991, Reger said.
“The equipment is beyond its usable life,” McKay said. “Districts don’t have dollars to make improvements unless you can pass a bond. Even if you pass a bond it may not be enough dollars to do everything you really need to do. I see school districts continue to keep systems going even though they’re near failure.”
Though Milton-Freewater voters in November 2011 approved a tax to fund its ambulance district, and a bond in 2010 to fix the Walla Walla River levee system, in the early 2000s the community five times rejected bonds to rebuild schools — the last attempt in 2007.
Passing a bond in a rural community, where the tax base is smaller, can be much harder than passing a bond in an urban area, McKay said.
“Systems are very costly,” he said, “and school districts just don’t have the dollars available from their general fund to make those improvements.”
Cool Schools also paid for an energy audit of all five of Milton-Freewater’s schools. Reger said the audit was finished last spring and the district received a report in the fall.
Each project suggested in the audit has to be individually evaluated for affordability, Reger said. The district must determine whether or not energy savings would cover the cost of any further loans or costs of repairs.
The school district having just assumed a 15-year loan, Reger said he’s reluctant to recommend taking on any more debt.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.