By Madelynn Coldiron
As a 34-year employee of a gas utility, Marion County school board Chairman Michael Mullins didn’t need any convincing when it came time for his board to decide whether to continue paying for a shared energy manager.
“We’ve saved quite a bit of money in the last two-three years … the numbers justify staying with the program,” Mullins said. “From what we’re saving and what we’re paying, we’re actually saving money. To me as a board member, I feel like it’s a shame that we have to have people like this energy manager. You’d think we could do it in-house, but we can’t.”
PHOTO: Seth Whittle of Russell Springs Elementary couldn’t be happier about pulling the plug to save energy in his school. The efforts of Seth and other students were rewarded with a “rebate” check from the central office as part of a district-wide competition among schools for saving the most money in a month.
Russell County Schools Superintendent Kenny Pickett is similarly convinced of the wisdom of keeping an energy manager on board.
“It has saved us, literally, over $100,000 last year – and that’s actual money,” he said.
The federal economic stimulus grant money that supported 35 new energy managers ran out in the spring, forcing the 144 participating school districts to decide whether to pick up the entire cost of their salaries.
Ultimately 18 of the 35 held onto their job, joining 13 others that had already been on board before the influx of grant money, administered by KSBA in partnership with the state Department for Energy Development and Independence.
Ron Willhite, who managed the program for KSBA, said the districts that stuck with an energy manager saw the benefit, but overall, it was a tough situation when some districts were faced with layoffs and other budget-cutting measures.
“Keeping a nonteaching position and laying a teacher off is tough politically,” he said, even though an energy manager may produce enough savings to pay for a teacher’s salary. “That’s a tough message to get across to some folks.”
Western Kentucky was hardest hit, Willhite said, with just two energy managers keeping their position.
The majority of energy managers who were able to stay had been working for partnerships of school districts that each contributed to their salary. Mullins said it might have been a different story, despite the value of the work, had Marion County had to pick up the whole tab.
Some of the surviving partnerships shifted, Willhite said. Some districts dropped out, while other coalitions were reconfigured. Marion County and its partner districts, for example, joined another coalition in which Jessamine County serves as the administrative lead.
That group’s energy manager, John Clemons, found himself with five new districts with the reconfiguration, and said he’s been “doing a ton” of entering energy-related data for those additions.
“I’m very far behind where I need to be, but I’m getting caught up fast,” he said. There is no standardized reporting and tracking system for utility data, “so I’m trying to come up with the best of both worlds” in creating a system that will cover all six districts he now serves.
Under the grant program, Woodford County Schools had partnered only with Jessamine County. Woodford Superintendent Scott Hawkins said it wasn’t feasible to continue with just two districts.
“We would have participated if there had been some additional grant funds coming forward. It would depend on how many districts and how big our slice of our pie would have been,” he said.
The district definitely offset its investment with energy cost savings under the grant-funded program, Hawkins added. However, the district buildings are relatively new and the program has already identified the “low-hanging fruit” for energy savings, making it hard to justify the expense of an energy manager.
“What’s going to be interesting is to see whether or not the districts that don’t have a designated energy manager will continue to progress, or will they fall back?” Willhite said.
He predicts that districts that kept an energy manager will continue to see energy savings because they have a “point person” who can focus on that work. Without that, he said, “I’m just not real confident” the behavior and other changes that led to the savings will be permanent.
Scott Caslow, the energy manager who serves Russell County and four other south-central Kentucky districts, also is skeptical. “I think it would go right back where it was,” he said. “No one would keep up with the spread sheet. No one would continue the savings if it’s not brought to the forefront of communication.”
Hawkins, however, doesn’t think the zeal for energy savings left with the energy manager who served Woodford County schools. “We have established habits,” he said. “We just need to make sure we maintain these.”
Clemons and Fayette County Schools energy manager Britney Thompson have also tried to keep what’s left of their peers in contact with each other, as they were before. The energy managers have been talking via conference call monthly.
“Some of the best things we came up with were ideas from each other,” Clemons said.