Can North Carolina schools save money by spending money, plus fight climate change and provide unique learning opportunities for students?
In Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, the answer has been YES!
As a school board member, I was intrigued in 2013 by our administration’s proposal to hire the first director of sustainability in North Carolina’s schools, when we had a retirement in another facilities position. While some benefits were clear, could this position ever save enough money to pay for itself? My more business-oriented board colleagues even cast a couple of votes against the proposal, but I decided it was worth the risk and voted for it.
I am so glad I did. Dan Schnitzer has brought discipline and innovative thinking to all sorts of energy-related issues in our schools. He ensured that we do a better job of controlling the temperature in schools–no more air conditioning running all night just because somebody forgot to turn it off. He oversaw the shift to all LED bulbs, reducing our energy usage significantly. He used community partnerships to bring in resources, such as small solar installations that track usage and savings, which is great for educating students who walk by. He coordinated student-run gardens, so students now are learning some entrepreneurial skills selling salsa at a farmer’s market. He even worked with the fire department and forestry folks to let environmental science students witness a controlled burn of some of our property–giving the fire department training hours, improving forest health, and giving students an exciting learning opportunity. Having a sustainability director has enabled that sort of triple-win repeatedly.
After three years with this position, we had a track record of what’s been saved. Not only were we saving more than the salary of the sustainability director, but we were also generating real dollars that the board needed to decide how to handle. We did so by passing a policy that says half of the net savings (from baseline expected costs) will be counted as “saved” each year, but half will be made available for further investments in sustainable changes. Those LED lights, for example, aren’t cheap to purchase up front, even though we use them so much that the eventual energy savings are significant.
Hiring a new position is risky. Trying to do it in tight budget times is tough. But strong leadership to see tough things through is exactly what our schools need to make revolutionary change: change that can cost less in the long term, saves our environment from climate change, and provides new and inspiring educational opportunities for students. Because there are energy savings everywhere, every North Carolina school system can and should have someone looking for these triple wins. With the right leadership in the State Superintendent’s office, we can figure out how to leverage statewide efforts to make it so!