SPECIAL SECTION: GREEN SCHOOLS

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How Does Your School Garden Grow?

Community-supported gardens are turning school lots green

By Dorothy Mullen

School gardens are taking root all over the Garden State. Sometimes the driving force is a parent, a teacher or even a board member who has been bitten by the gardening bug. The trouble is that there’s no defined path from where they are now (no garden) to where they want to be (an attractive, funded, sustainable project).

The hurdles seem endless: The principal is skeptical because she had a weed patch after the last batch of green enthusiasts graduated with their kids. It’s not in the budget. Who will take care of all the details and what about summer? It’s not in the budget. The teachers are already hard-pressed to get everything done that they have to do. And—in case you haven’t heard—it’s not in the budget!

Nevertheless, school gardens are germinating and something—if not institutional imperatives to make them happen—is driving the trend in spite of the obstacles. It might be that on the other side of the scale is a long list of benefits that inspire teachers to pull on their boots and parents to schedule herb sales.

The Benefits of School Gardens There are numerous advantages to school gardens. From an educational standpoint, they are living laboratories that engage all the senses in the learning process. Gardens teach lessons on the life and death consequences of one’s actions and reward children who meet their needs with berries, flowers, pungent herbs and tasty vegetables. They help children connect to their food sources and they succeed at getting them to eat more vegetables.

Gardens demand physical engagement and provide active alternatives to those mind-numbing and fattening hours in front of screens. They provide safe settings for spontaneous play, where wonder at nature emerges.

They teach environmental awareness. As cultural concerns about stewardship of the planet grow, there’s no better place than outdoors to teach soil preservation and water conservation, or to instill good habits like composting and recycling.

They teach character and build a sense of community. School gardens are team efforts. And, they’re beautiful.

First Lady Michelle Obama is infusing the school garden movement with a sense of urgency, identifying gardens as an important way to combat the epidemics of diabetes and childhood obesity. It is commonly accepted that certain processed foods are driving the obesity and diabetes epidemics. There is a growing body of research indicating that they may also impact brain structure and function and could be affecting the numbers of children with learning issues. (See Campbell-McBride and Simontacchi in the “Resources” box on page 21.). There is also some evidence that food processing has a lot to answer for in terms of trouble with mood, behavior and vulnerability to substances like alcohol. What better place to do primary prevention than in the school garden?

The trend toward school gardens is not mandated by any education authority. Each school is sorting out for itself how to make a garden happen. Unfunded, and with benefits so diverse and multi-disciplinary that no one discipline really owns the movement, it is, nevertheless, unmistakably a movement. And the trend is community supported.

Community-Supported School Gardening Princeton Regional Schools Superintendent Judy Wilson has watched outdoor classrooms sprout up at every school in the district. “Community-supported school gardens are a bright spot in the lean landscape of education budgets,” Wilson commented. “Parents, teachers, local business, community volunteers and area foundations have partnered with the district to accomplish together what none of us could have done separately.”

In Wilson’s district, even the high school has a garden and working in the garden is now a legitimate physical education option for students. Led by teacher Matt Wilkinson, the physical education department at Princeton High School has been able to successfully incorporate a variety of lifetime fitness skills into their gardening curriculum.  Body mechanics, physical training methods in non-competitive activities, and relaxation techniques are taught in the “outdoor classrooms,” which were originally installed by a team of over 50 community volunteers.

Depending on the contract with the food service, schools may or may not be able to offer their own garden produce in the cafeteria. Where helping children educate their palates for fresh food is a priority, schools are devising any number of clever ways to get it into them: pesto days when the basil and garlic are harvested; comparative taste testings of the stems, leaves, flowers and fruits of a plant; harvesting time built in to the last 10 minutes of a class; making soup with  herbs  collected using the portable kitchen cart when rain forces the gardening students indoors; and preparing foods that are central to the stories they’re reading or the cultures they’re studying. 

If the timing of growing means there’s produce in the summer, it’s a great incentive for volunteers to keep showing up to maintain the gardens. Some gardens donate to local food pantries.

The movement in Princeton Regional has garnered lots of goodwill and visibility through the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Susan Conlon, a librarian who founded and coordinates the film festival at the Princeton Public Library each year, sees to it that school gardens get a lot of play. In addition to featuring documentaries at each festival, the library hosts free workshops and professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators. Notes Conlon: “Last year we had so many registrants for our spring workshop that we decided to offer a second session. People came from all over New Jersey to learn about the how-tos of start up, funding and grant writing; the important links between nutrition and academic achievement; and waking children’s palates for fresh, healthy food.”

Local businesses are important partners. Gab Carbone and Matt Errico run the Bent Spoon, an ice cream store in Princeton with high standards for local sourcing. “It’s a great, grand circle,” says Carbone. “We get to use herbs from the school gardens and lots of local ingredients. The Whole Earth Center (a local health food grocery store) sells the pints and the proceeds go right back into the gardens.” In New Brunswick, Elijah’s Promise (a soup kitchen that also trains people to work in the food service industry) is working to bring local food into school cafeterias and the community.  Executive Director Lisanne Finston says, “Elijah’s Promise supports school gardens because healthy change begins with connecting people to food at its source.”

Bill Cirullo is the principal at Riverside Elementary School in Princeton, and he’s enthusiastic. “I get a charge out of seeing these kids come in after a class in the garden. One’s carrying a butterfly house; the next has a basket of petri dishes, and most of them walk in with fistfuls of beans and flowers.” Cirullo dedicated a south-facing slope by the soccer field nine years ago, and it has grown into the largest public school garden in New Jersey. The Riverside gardens are set up to meet the needs of the school community and also to respond to the growing demand for help with start-ups: they provide a stage for tours, trainings and workshop for people from other districts.

This fall, the New Jersey Farm-to-School Network hosted several regional school garden trainings at schools where the gardens are established enough to enable the trainers to educate others about start up, matching lessons, sharing funding ideas and even plant material like raspberry bushes. Director Beth Feehan is very concerned about children’s taste buds for whole foods, as well as getting as much locally grown food into the cafeterias as possible.  

Another important source of community support is the local horticultural talent. Janet Sheppard is a master gardener in Mercer County, one of several volunteering in the Hopewell Valley Regional schools. Sheppard revealed her motivation: “I’m a retired teacher. I couldn’t stay away from children. Getting out here with a class of kindergartners is the most fun I have all day.” Volunteers are motivated by the pleasure they experience sharing their interests. It might be entomology, cooking, or sharing one’s knowledge about native plants. The volunteers are out there, but it requires someone in each school to get it all organized.

Community volunteers can help solve the problem of summer. Gardeners in Franklin Township (Somerset County) reported learning painful lessons about the difficulty of tending to the persistent needs of gardens. Sometimes, even when grants have been awarded or funds designated, it can take weeks or months to cut a check. Community volunteers in Franklin organized a bucket brigade to keep teacher Audra Wood’s garden alive with no hoses last summer. Elsewhere, the PTO skirted the purchase-order system and established a credit line at the local nursery, which led to all schools in the district receiving a 10 percent discount on everything at the store.

Parents in Princeton responded to economic reality by starting the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative. Diane Landis, a member of the co-op board, makes presentations regularly at the environmental film festival, where funding is always a hot topic. “There are start-up grants out there, but marshalling the local support and interest from area businesses comes before attracting bigger grant money,” she said. In any case, community support is needed to make the programs sustainable. “After five years in operation,” Landis added, “we were awarded $30,000 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for a program that brings local chefs into the schools.”

New Jersey Farm-to-School Network’s Beth Feehan sees it a different way. “Long term, if we don’t figure out a way to fund gardens as part of the school budget, the programs won’t attract good garden-based educators,” she said. “We can’t rely on volunteers across the state to make this happen when the health and educational consequences of not doing so are so serious.”

Getting Started There are any number of ways to get started, but the first step always focuses on the people and what motivates them. Below are some excerpts from the eight-page garden checklist available at the New Jersey Farm–to-School Network website.

Stakeholders School gardens rise and fall on the relationships of the people who make them happen. Cultivate the relationships like you take care of the soil. Who has to be on board to make this happen?

The principal: Principals approve or deny teacher training time, determine use of space, and dedicate funds. It is very important to know what he or she cares about and to stay on that page.

Teachers: Some interest needs to come from the people who decide to take the children outside.

The garden manager: Who is the identified person or small group that will deal with the issues of caring for a living classroom when details fall through the cracks or assignments are not clear?

Parents: Sometimes they’re the ones driving the gardens and sorting out funding.

Depending on the interests driving the garden, it’s good for the team to include cafeteria staff or food service; community volunteers to help with labor and instruction; a custodian (it’s too late to develop a nice relationship with the custodians when you discover a nest of yellowjackets or a hose bursts in a heat wave); a nurse or health teacher; and a librarian, who can reinforce outdoor learning with media center activities.

Start Up Considerations Long before groundbreaking, these issues need to be dealt with:

Purpose: Once the team is in place, it needs a statement of purpose, just to be sure everyone can embrace agreed-upon goals of the project. After you’ve broken ground, it may be too late to deal with tension because one partner is only interested in science lessons, another wanted to plant flowers, and a third is motivated by the children’s nutritional status.

Location: Location is everything. You want to meet all the horticultural needs of the plants for sun, soil, water and drainage. You might want to maximize the public relations and goodwill value by placing a beautiful garden in a highly visible location or tucking it into a courtyard if there are safety concerns.

Size: It depends on the base of support. You can always expand.

Design: The design will be driven by the purposes the garden is to serve, the desires of the team, the available space, and the needs of the plants you select. Most of the early effort should go into care of the soil. If you have $100, spend $50 on the soil. See the garden checklist about setting up beds, a compost area, storage area, signage and fencing, etc.

Money: You can start a small garden on $300 if you get a lot of the material donated. Or you can spend $16,000 for a perfect, commercially installed ready-to-plant garden. If you spend less money, you’ll spend more time. If you spend more money, you may miss out on certain ecology lessons, like growing your own compost. In any event, if your funds are limited, the majority of the effort should go into building soil. Every site is different, but be sure to consider the basics when making up the budget: expenses related to locating it (making water reach the garden, clearing land, tilling the first year or setting up raised beds); soil test kit and amendments like compost; tools; means of watering; materials for raised beds, if using; seeds, starts, or mature plants; supports and stakes; protections, fencing, row covers; fertilizers; pest controls, if using; instructional materials, field guides, books; expertise, if the volunteers are beginners; material for walkways; cold frames, green house; mulch; containers; and labor.

In-ground or raised beds: Decisions will have to be made that you’ll have to live with for a while. You may want a few raised beds the first year while you start composting and working your own soil. You may want to plant a fall crop of something like winter rye, to improve the soil and teach stewardship of the soil. You will want to start with a soil test to guide your decisions (county extension services of Rutgers have soil tests for $20 each) and add lots of organic material. Rototilling may be necessary the first year. Soil preparation is critical. A good resource is available online.

Horticultural needs: In addition to the obvious sun, water and space needs, each plant has specific requirements. You don’t need to memorize long lists of plants by special needs, but you do need to have a sense of which are cold, cool, warm and hot-loving plants. You need to know which planting zone you are located in to determine your first and last frost dates (Most of New Jersey is Zone 6 or 7, with last and first frost dates in May and October.) If at all possible, you want your garden to face south, with tall plants on the north side and short plants on the south side to maximize sun light hours.

Educational Purpose: Is the garden there for lessons or spontaneous learning, or maybe both? Not all districts require that the garden be set up to teach lessons matched to state standards, but the question needs to be considered at the beginning. In either case, an herb garden is an excellent place to start. It delights the senses, provides food, and delivers the biggest bang for the curriculum buck.

Safety Rules: The first lessons in any garden need to include the safety rules. These include: using the senses for plant identification before tasting; knowing ahead which children have allergies to plants, pollen, mold or stings; knowing ahead if there are children who need sunscreen; allowing no bare feet or flip flops in the garden; adding only plant materials to the compost that don’t attract vermin; learning to walk with and pass tools safely; and discussing pest controls.

There are also safety rules to protect the plants. These include: keeping feet on pathways, using two hands to pick plants so you don’t uproot them (one to hold the plant and the other to nip off); discussing pest barriers and keeping the gate shut; practicing hose management so the students don’t decapitate plants when they haul the hoses around. In fact, it’s a good idea to use all these ideas as drills.

Face the Big Challenges at the Easiest Time: The Beginning The easiest time to deal with the challenges is before you start digging. Let the principal know the exit strategy up front so she doesn’t have to worry about the potential weed patch. That may help her give consent. Creating incentives—like picking rights—can attract summer volunteers, a dicey problem for any school. And setting up a credit line with a local nursery so you can deal with the life and death issues of living plants takes a lot of stress out of the management of the project.

The garden checklist at New Jersey Farm-to-School Network prompts answers for all the items you need to consider to make your community supported school garden a safe and happy setting for garden-based education.

SCHOOL GARDEN RESOURCES

New Jersey Farm-to-School Network

Center for Ecoliteracy: “Getting Started”

Junior Master Gardeners: Garden Lessons (Texas A&M)

Mercer County Master Gardeners Fact Sheets from Rutgers

Princeton School Gardens Cooperative Guide for Lessons


Princeton Environmental Film Festival

For Information on Diet and Brains:

The Crazy Makers
by Carol Simontacchi

Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Natasha Campbell-McBride

Dorothy Mullen is a garden-based “artist in residence” at Riverside School in Princeton. She is also founder of the Suppers Program, a non-profit organization supporting people with diet-related health challenges through whole food preparation. She conducts food- and garden-based workshops for professional development and garden start-up training. She can be reached at DorMullen@gmail.com or at www.DorothyMullen.org.

Paying For Greening Your School

When "green" means finances

By Ronald J. Ianoale, Esq.

School districts that want to install energy efficient measures always face the same conundrum: the improvements will save money in the long run, but how does a district get the money to pay the upfront costs now?

Recent changes in energy-related laws provide New Jersey school districts with more alternatives to finance these improvements. But the new energy legislation, coupled with regulations from the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) and the state Department of Community Affairs, sometimes makes it difficult to determine the best financial strategy. This article discusses the three ways school districts can finance energy-related improvements: school bonds, power purchase agreements, and energy savings improvement programs.

Energy-related improvements can be classified into two categories: energy conservation measures (improvements that consist primarily of making existing facilities more energy efficient ); and one type of renewable energy technology, solar energy. While there is a variety of renewable energy technologies that can be used to generate electricity — wind, bio-power, and geothermal, power generated through photovoltaic panels appears to be the most cost effective for school districts.

School Bonds New Jersey school districts can issue bonds to finance energy-related improvements. Energy conservation measures qualify for both debt service aid and regular operating district (ROD) grants administered by the New Jersey Schools Development Authority. Solar energy does not qualify for ROD grants but can receive state debt service aid.

Solar energy projects also allow school districts to sell solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs). SRECs are a type of clean energy credit that can be bought or sold. An SREC is issued once a solar facility has generated 1 MWh through either estimated or actual metered production. SRECs can be sold separately from the electricity that the solar system saves, thus affording school districts another source of revenue to offset the cost and the payback period for such an installation. School districts can sell their SRECs to an entity that must purchase them in order for that entity to fulfill its renewable portfolio standards as required by the BPU. Currently, the BPU allows the SRECs to be sold for a 15-year period for each solar installation.

The price of SRECs is determined primarily by supply and demand, with the upward value of an SREC being influenced by the cost of a solar alternative compliance payment, or SACP. The BPU sets the price of the solar alternative compliance payment above the target levels for an SREC. That gives electric suppliers an incentive to purchase SRECs instead of alternative compliance payments.

Power Purchase Agreements The passage of the Public Laws of 2008, Chapter 83, effective Sept. 10, 2008, authorizes school districts and other public entities to enter into power purchase agreements for a maximum term of 15 years. The law requires the BPU to adopt guidelines for establishing the methodology for computing energy savings. The BPU adopted such guidelines in an order that it approved on Feb. 27, 2009; the order is titled Public Entity Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Cost Savings Guidelines. These guidelines can be obtained from the BPU’s website.

Power purchase agreements shift the entire responsibility and risk of installing a solar energy installation to another party, or solar investor. The solar investor will finance, install, maintain, and own the solar project — providing a true “turnkey” operation for a district. In exchange, a school district agrees to provide roof space or land for the solar installation and to purchase the electricity generated from the solar installation for a maximum period of 15 years. In general, these agreements usually reduce a school district’s electricity costs by approximately 15 percent to 20 percent over the 15-year term. Ownership of the solar panels will usually vest with the school district at the end of the agreement. The solar investor benefits from the power purchase agreement by owning the SRECs, accelerating the depreciation of the solar panels, and the use of 30 percent federal tax credits or grants (the federal tax credit or grant is only available to a tax-paying entity).

Energy Savings Improvement Programs Energy Savings Improvement Programs, which are often referred to ESIPs, were enacted in January 2009. ESIPs are also known as performance contracts—i.e., the energy savings derived from the energy conservation measures to be financed exceed the costs to design, install, and finance such improvements. The law permits all school districts to issue energy savings obligations (sometimes referred to as “ESOs”) or energy lease purchase agreements for up to 15 years. The ESIP legislation permits Type II school districts to finance energy conservation measures without the need for a bond referendum. (Note that we mention “energy conservation measures” here. While a school district is permitted to include a solar energy project in an ESIP financing, these types of projects are generally not included for two reasons: the energy savings company (sometimes called the ESCO), is usually unwilling to stipulate an amount of SREC revenues that a solar installation will yield over 15 years, and the initial cost of a solar installation substantially reduces the energy savings of the other conservation measures being financed.)

ESOs are considered a hybrid form of bond because the energy savings generated from the installation of conservation measures pay the principal of and interest on the bonds. For that reason, the debt service created by the ESOs is not paid from the debt service fund, but from the general fund. Similarly, the payment of the principal portion and the interest portion on any rent due under an energy lease is also paid from the general fund’s energy savings.

A school district issuing ESOs must introduce a refunding bond ordinance and submit the ordinance along with an application to the state Department of Community Affairs’ Local Finance Board for approval before the school district can finally adopt the ordinance.

ESIP-financed improvements do not qualify for state aid—either in the form of debt service aid or regular operating district grants. ESOs are secured by the “New Jersey Bond Reserve Act,” because a school district pledges its full faith and credit toward the payment of the principal of and interest on these securities. Because the ESOs are enhanced by the “New Jersey Bond Reserve Act,” these securities will likely obtain an “AA” rating, thus ensuring a competitive interest rate. Finally, the issuance of ESOs does not increase the debt limit of the school district.

A school district also has the option of entering into a 15-year energy lease-purchase agreement instead of issuing energy savings obligations. An energy lease would most likely be used by a Type I, vocational, or state-operated school district. These districts can avoid the need for their municipal and county governing bodies to issue bonds on their behalf by entering into an energy lease to finance improvements.

Unlike typical equipment leases, an energy lease is not required to have an annual cancellation or “subject to annual appropriation“ clause, which permits a school district to not appropriate a rent payment if it has insufficient funds to conduct a thorough and efficient education. And the payment of rent under the energy lease is not restricted to the energy savings in the event of a shortfall in the anticipated energy savings in any one year (which is a restriction in other state energy laws), but can be made from any line item in the general fund. Nor is the energy lease required to be approved by the Local Finance Board like the issuance of energy savings obligations. These provisions in the ESIP legislation allow an energy lease to obtain interest rates that are only slightly higher than its companion security—energy savings obligations.

Which Method to Pick? One often-asked question is “Which of the three financing mechanisms—bonds, power purchase agreements, or ESIPs—is best for my school district?” The appropriate response is another question: “What does your school district want to achieve”? If a school district believes its voters, in the case of a Type II school district, or its county or municipal governing body in the case of a Type I or similarly organized school district, will authorize bonds, then financing energy-related improvements with bonds will enable a school district to receive the most amount of state aid and finance the largest number of projects. Bond-financed projects can receive ROD grants or debt service aid for their energy conservation measures and debt service aid for solar energy projects. State aid, when combined with SREC revenue and the reduction in energy costs, will enable a school district to accomplish the largest amount of energy improvements when compared to power purchase agreements and ESIP financed projects.

School districts that want to undertake a solar energy project and do not believe that the voters, or county and municipal governing bodies will authorize bonds should consider a power purchase agreement. Similarly, school districts that want to avoid a bond referendum, or asking their county and municipal governing bodies to issues bonds on their behalf, can benefit from an ESIP to finance energy conservation measures. The number of energy conservation measures that can be financed under an ESIP, however, will be limited by the amount of energy savings that the energy conservation measures can generate.

As board members consider their facilities, they should remember that with the variety of different financing mechanisms available, making energy-related improvements is within the reach of nearly all New Jersey school districts.


Ronald J. Ianoale is a partner with McManimon & Scotland, a Newark-based law firm. He can be reached at rianoale@mandslaw.com.
 

Energy Audits

The first step in reviving a tired infrastructure

By Michael Fischette

In an economic climate that severely inhibits financing school infrastructure improvements, New Jersey has expanded upon existing legislation to help school districts improve their buildings without adding to their debt limits. By utilizing the Local Government Energy Audit (LGEA) program along with financing through the Energy Savings Improvement Program (ESIP), local governments can capitalize the energy and operations savings to implement capital improvement projects today. When combined with other state and federal incentives (such as those from New Jersey Board of Public Utilities’ (BPU) Direct Install, Pay for Performance and federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) programs), ESIPs provide a mechanism to “package” these programs and apply them without the need for state aid or increases in local taxes. But school districts need to beware that implementing any of these programs individually could risk losing the borrowing leverage that ESIPs generate. (See story, page 23.)

In many American schools, students and teachers find themselves in a physical environment that adversely affects their morale, and, in some cases, their health. Studies also indicate that when a school building is in disrepair, student achievement suffers. School systems often reluctantly postpone repairs and delay construction of new facilities to save money during periods of financial austerity. Making cuts in these areas, while unpalatable, is considered less devastating than slashing academic programs. The fallout of such decisions, however, is that the condition of school facilities in the U.S .is rapidly failing.

Deferred maintenance can create an environment of peeling paint, crumbling plaster, nonfunctioning toilets, poor lighting, inadequate ventilation, and inoperative heating and cooling systems. This, of course, affects both the health and the morale of staff and students. New Jersey schools are no exception. Many suffer from an aging building infrastructure that is inefficient and many times contributes to an unacceptable learning environment.

A tired and neglected infrastructure has been among the biggest challenges for schools during our economic crisis, as big projects that include major renovations and new construction have typically fared less than favorably with voters. Overall, 2010 was not a very good year for school construction projects, with only half of 34 proposals winning voters’ approval. With this deep recession, voters continue to be reluctant to spend or borrow for big ticket items.

School business administrators are sharpening their pencils, trying to figure out how to maintain services while keeping tax levies within 2 percent of last year’s numbers. With real estate taxes being the prime funding source for schools and local governments, business administrators are paying close attention to this measure, which also cut the number of exemptions from 14 to just four. One exemption that didn’t make the cut was the “capital outlay spending adjustment.” In the past, this exemption provided for necessary infrastructure improvements. Without it, many fear that upgrades of mechanical systems, for example, will be put on the backburner and continued deterioration will ensue.

Helping Districts Help Themselves Though most municipalities across the Garden State are experiencing painful budget crunches, New Jersey continues to set aside funds for projects intended to save money in the long run. While $147 million in stimulus money has been allocated to New Jersey for energy efficiency and conservation, word is just starting to spread about programs that school districts must implement if they are truly concerned about preserving infrastructure and saving taxpayer dollars.

Alternative financing through energy efficiency savings is not new in New Jersey. In fact, energy performance contracting has been in place since the early 1990s, and was a popular means of aid to school districts with no other way to finance badly needed improvements in heating, air conditioning, ventilation and lighting systems. Additionally, building code changes requiring greater ventilation rates for education facilities necessitated using more expensive and sophisticated equipment and controls.

Old legislation allowed school districts to use energy savings to finance infrastructure projects over a 10-year period. Initially, this was accomplished by engaging an Energy Service Company (ESCO), which would implement the entire project as a design-build contractor and would guarantee the savings. It should be noted that financing was almost always assigned to a third party leasing company, not from the ESCO.

New legislation provides for several changes to protect local governments and provide flexibility in implementing these projects. Some significant changes are:

• Projects can be capitalized over a 15 -year period

• An energy audit must be performed and must be independent from an ESCO

• The local government can self-perform the ESIP without an ESCO

• The installation must be publicly bid even if an ESCO is used

• An independent firm must verify the savings

Using Money to Save Money The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities’ (NJBPU) Clean Energy Program funds 100 percent of the energy audit up to a $100,000 per year limit as part of the Local Government Energy Audit (LGEA) program. This incentive is extended to government agencies (including public schools), non-profits, and state colleges and universities, and no longer requires that measures equal to at least 25 percent of the cost of the audit be implemented by participants. According to the NJBPU, the first round of 485 completed audits has a cumulative projected savings of 66,540,955 kWh and 2,162,592 therms. Improving energy efficiency in public buildings helps lower taxes, reduces the community’s carbon footprint and sets an example for the private sector. However, only a small percentage of public schools have taken advantage of this program to date. School officials should consider a game plan while funding is still available.

The audit maximizes cost-effectiveness in several ways by providing participants with a detailed prioritization of energy-saving measures that demonstrate the greatest return on investment. Participants supply applications to the program, including information about the buildings to be audited. LGEA program representatives help participants develop a request for proposal template, decide if each building should be audited, and assist in evaluating proposals from one of five pre-selected auditing firms. Upon approval, the auditing firm performs the energy audit and produces a comprehensive report. The report is submitted to the NJ Clean Energy Program, which reviews and approves the audit before providing the incentive payment to the program participant.

Specifically, an energy audit measures and establishes a baseline of where and how energy is consumed at a facility and identifies opportunities to lower energy consumption and costs. The audit provides applicants with valuable information about the efficiency of their current equipment and makes recommendations on cost-effective Energy Conservation Measures.

During the audit, engineers examine energy usage patterns and inspect all systems inside and outside of the facility. Systems examined include:

• All lighting systems inside and outside the facility

• Domestic hot water heating and distribution systems

• HVAC systems

• Plug loads (the energy consumed by plug-in devices and applicances)

• Windows and doors

• Building insulation

With school budgets so tight and accountability so important, conducting an energy audit allows districts to make purchasing decisions armed with the most current information about facilities’ energy usage and cost savings potential. Renewable energy alternatives (i.e. solar, wind) are also included in the audit, as well as financing resources that are available to assist in the implementation of identified conservation measures. School districts can immediately reduce operating expenses by combining the power of the audit with an ESIP to finance energy savings projects over 15 years. Once completed, the audit allows schools to implement more essential projects, funded from the savings they produce. As energy conservation measures are implemented, other benefits including reductions in maintenance and operations costs are also realized.

A Case to Copy One example of an energy audit at its best is Jackson Township’s Board of Education District-Wide Energy Conservation Project. An ongoing construction project at seven schools began with an energy audit. It later evolved into a 10-year performance contract that, with additional funding of $286,000 from the NJBPU’s SmartStart Buildings Program, resulted in estimated annual energy savings of $550,000. Additionally, it should be noted that this savings continues for the life of the equipment. Once the energy audit identified necessary conservation measures and was implemented through an ESIP, new lighting retrofits, geothermal heating and cooling systems and other sustainable solutions could be installed.

Common Sense Education With the ongoing mandate for schools to adopt sustainable energy programs and cut costs at the same time, conducting an energy audit is a short-term answer that translates into long-term decisions. ESIPs give school districts an attractive alternative to standard referendum-based capital projects. When the need to restructure education is discussed, there is often no mention of improving the physical site of learning. This need for commitment at local, state and federal levels to upgrade school facilities is paramount as we strive for the “advancement of public education.”


Michael Fischette, PE (professional engineer), CGD (certified geo-exchange designer), is a principal at Concord Engineering Group, Inc. He can be reached at LGEA@ceg-inc.net.

 

FEATURES

A Talk with NJSBA's Board Member of the Year

Linda Bond-Nelson has helped guide the North Plainfield school district for two decades

By Janet Bamford

“Given the turmoil in education today, it is difficult to find stable administrators and even more difficult to maintain consistent, dedicated, outstanding board of education members,” said Dr. Marilyn Birnbaum, superintendent of the North Plainfield school district in her nomination of her board’s president for NJSBA School Board Member of the Year. “Linda L. Bond-Nelson is the exception.”

Bond-Nelson was chosen as Board Member of the Year by an independent panel from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and honored at NJSBA’s November 2010 Delegate Assembly.

Bond-Nelson, a board member since 1992, is currently the president of the North Plainfield school board; she has served in that role for eight years and served as board vice president for nine years. During her nearly two-decade tenure, she has chaired or served on all of the board committees, including curriculum, negotiations, finance and facilities, policy, communication, and evaluation and personnel.

During her tenure, the district has reorganized the ESL/bilingual, academic support, special education and gifted-and-talented/honors programs, implemented the Navy Jr. ROTC program and expanded the fine and performing arts programs. She encouraged the implementation of a comprehensive technology plan that included laptops and wireless technology throughout the district, with numerous programs and training opportunities to support the initiatives.

“Having become assistant superintendent shortly after Ms. Bond-Nelson began in 1992 and superintendent in 1995, I have had the opportunity to work very closely with her,” Birnbaum said. “She has been a cheerleader and a partner – careful to never overstep her bounds as board president or member, yet persistent in stressing the importance of strategic planning, goal setting, fiscally sound budgets, accountability to all constituents, and board policy.”

She has also been active in the Somerset County School Board Association, serving as a former second vice-president; as a trainer for NJSBA’s New Board Member Orientation program; as a Workshop volunteer; and as an alternate delegate to NJSBA’s Delegate Assembly.

Bond-Nelson served for many years as a PTA member and officer in North Plainfield’s Stony Brook School, and was an active parent in the North Plainfield High School Music Parents Association.  She is also involved in education professionally, working as operations manager at Drew University’s admissions office.

Given annually since 2005, the School Board Member of the Year award honors an individual board member who makes significant contributions; exemplifies leadership in the field of education with a strong commitment to the children of New Jersey; demonstrates a strong commitment to his/her personal and professional development as a board member; and shows active involvement in school governance at the local, county and state levels.

Linda Bond-Nelson has two grown children, who attended North Plainfield schools, and three grandchildren. Recently, School Leader spoke with her about her experiences as a board member.

How did you first get involved on serving on a school board? The person who roped me into doing this was one of the longest serving board members in Somerset County. Her name was Winifred G. Letso, and she served on North Plainfield’s board for 27 years. One night when I was in the audience at a board meeting, she asked me if I would be interested in running for election. She was truly a dedicated board member and a real supporter of the schools. Later, when I got elected, she was one of the trainers when I went to the weekend New Board Member Orientation.

What surprised you when you first started serving on a board? What advice would you give to a new school board member? I think the biggest surprise when you’re a new board member is finding out what you don’t know. One of the things we keep trying to tell our newly elected members is that you have to spend pretty much the first year asking questions and listening. And listening and listening and listening. There is so much background information that you don’t know.

That is why I thought the weekend New Board Member Orientation was so great. There is such a lot of information that new board members need to absorb and it is overwhelming. You can’t really absorb all you need to in a one-day program.

It was also easier to make networking contacts at the weekend program, which is so important. When I got through the orientation, I was just hooked. The trainers were so knowledgeable and caring and committed. I really thought that the New Board Member Orientation was one of the best educational experiences of my life.

The other thing we always tell new board members is that we don’t have to have a unanimous vote. We tell them “vote your conscience.” That sometimes surprises them.

Can you tell us about your district and your board? North Plainfield is a pre-K through high school district with about 3,250 students. We have three elementary schools, an intermediate school with 5th and 6th grades, and a 7-12 middle school-high school that is housed in the same building (at one end is the middle school and at the other end is the high school). They’re divided by a stairwell and each has its own identity and programs.

We historically have been a united board. I assume more boards are like us than not. We are very apolitical; we don’t know what someone’s political affiliation is. It might come out later in conversation, but it has no bearing on anything that is happening with the board of education, which is a good thing. We have not had a lot of controversy among board members, but I will tell you we are perfectly capable of having a heated discussion.

One thing that helps us run meetings smoothly is that several of us have been serving together on the board for a while now, and we don’t feel as if we have to repeat everything that has already been said. That slows down meetings. Also, when you have more experience, you don’t need to have as much explained to you. You know what “NJQSAC” is, for example.

Until last year, you had an unusual feature in your district–an adult high school. How did that work? The North Plainfield Adult High School was a fully accredited program which ran in the evening with certificated staff teaching all the courses, and graduates received a credit-based high school diploma, not a GED. We had the adult high school for more than 25 years but last year, when the state cut the funding for it, we had to close down.

It was very inspiring to see students who ranged in age from 16 to 85 take advantage of a second chance to earn a state-endorsed diploma from North Plainfield High School. It’s such a loss that we don’t have the program any longer.

Fortunately, the adult high school principal had already begun a proposal to start an alternative high school program, so we were able to put together relatively quickly a viable program serving non-traditional students ages 14 through 20.

What have been your board’s biggest challenges in the years you’ve been there? One of the biggest challenges was the building referendum. While we encouraged a lot of community input, and we had many meetings with different constituencies, it took five attempts and seven years to get it passed. During construction, we had staggered schedules to accommodate all the students. We simultaneously built an addition to the high school-middle school, did a major renovation and addition to the Somerset Intermediate School, and made renovations, additions and improvements to the elementary schools.

It all worked out in the end, but it took a whole lot longer than we thought it was going to.

We are continuously facing, as is everyone else, the challenges of No Child Left Behind. It’s very frustrating to meet 40 of 41 benchmarks and not be considered successful. We need a growth model, which shows that perhaps all students may not be proficient, but they’ve still improved from last year to this.

And of course money, as always, is the big challenge.

What programs or initiatives are you particularly proud of? Over the years, we have won several awards for best practices and innovative programs that teachers have instituted. We have a wonderfully creative staff.

We have a part of our special education program called the Bridge program, which is a transition program for at-risk students. We have mentoring programs for our high school students who mentor younger students, and for experienced teachers who mentor newer teachers. We have professional learning communities for our teachers, and some wonderful reading initiatives for our students. We also have some great character education programs for our elementary schools.

We’ve been making slow and steady progress, which is how education works. These are not earth-shattering things but we’re trying to move forward and be responsive to what our kids need. Each group has its own needs which have to be addressed specifically and we try to do that.

The high school graduation is wonderful. It’s very impressive to see everyone in caps and gowns, including the teachers who wear their gowns with their academic hoods and cowls, with different colors depending on their academic disciplines. It’s one of the high points of the year.

One of the best things about North Plainfield is that we see ourselves as really a microcosm of the world. We have a very nicely blended demographic here. I feel so lucky to be in a community like this. It’s absolutely the best feeling.

How is board service different now from when you first started 20 years ago? From my perspective, the big things are not that different. When you come to our board room one of the first things you see is our Board Member Code of Ethics on the wall. That has been our absolute guideline for years.

Although our local Acme supermarket was replaced by a Super Stop and Shop, it’s still the place where you have conversations with your constituents.

Board members get two packets of information before each board meeting. We expect everyone to be prepared and that means reading the packet and understanding it and asking any questions before the meeting.

Everyone who has been elected to our board has really been focused on what is best for the kids. I can’t ask for anything more than that.

What is the hardest thing about being a board member? Our board tries to live by the motto: “No Surprises.” The superintendent is prepared to answer any question relative to the agenda, especially if it is asked beforehand. What should not happen is asking questions based on rumor or innuendo which had not been brought to the superintendent’s attention prior to the meeting. Probably the most frustrating thing is the amount of time it takes to get anything moving. I don’t know if anyone can do anything about that, but it can wear you down after a while. For those of us who have served for a long time, one begins to ask “Why am I doing this? Have I made any difference at all?” Then, suddenly, something little happens or someone says something and you think it’s worth every moment, every meeting, every piece of paper you have to read, and all those NJSBA training sessions you were lucky enough to attend!

What do you think the biggest challenges boards across the state are facing? The biggest challenge would be primarily budgetary. But I also think we’re laboring under an attack. The future existence of local boards of education may be at risk. Everything we seem to be doing to support our educators doesn’t seem to be quite up to expectations, and everyone is being accused of being greedy and inept. Boards have to say to their districts, yes, there are difficulties —nobody is saying there aren’t —but we also must look at our successes and the positive things we’re doing. And we have to support our administrative and teaching staff members for the difficult jobs they are doing and doing well.

You have served on all the board committees. Do you have a favorite? My heart goes to the policy committee. My next more important one is curriculum, and the committee I’ve served on the longest is negotiations. That’s the most challenging.

What do you think has helped you do your job as a board member? Without the benefit of NJSBA training, we would not be as good at what we do. I am a (NJSBA-accredited)Master Board Member, and that training was invaluable. Now our entire board is working on earning the Carole E. Larsen Master Board Certification. My job has been made so much easier because of the mutual respect among board members and between the board and the administration and staff, which cannot be emphasized enough. Since we are all working together toward a common goal, I think that sense of teamwork is crucial for success.

You’ve served for nearly twenty years. What does the future hold? The future will hold the same challenges we are dealing with today, but probably on a larger scale. Funding of appropriate programs, with qualified staff, serving a larger and more diverse population, in well-maintained facilities, with more restraints and mandates, are all things I have experienced and would expect to continue. However, this will probably be my last term. It’s time for somebody else to take over. We have enough people here who have served long enough that we have continuity and who can serve as the board’s informal historian. But I said that last time, and here I am again – so who knows? I really consider it a privilege to serve as a school board member.


Janet Bamford is managing editor of School Leader. She can be reached at jbamford@njsba.org.

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Grow Your Own

Looking for your successor? In most cases, the answer is no, but maybe you should consider it.

By Del Stover

Most school board members know that their district would be better off if they encouraged, recruited and mentored responsible, like-minded community members to step in when the next person leaves office. Most also know it’s not likely to happen.

Sometimes individuals on the board privately approach a local business leader or respected community member to encourage a run for office. Sometimes board members talk among themselves about prodding someone to throw their hat into the election ring.

But not enough do that, say school board veterans and state association staff. And structured efforts to “grow” the next generation of board members are rare indeed. Far more often, boards leave matters to chance, hoping against hope that good candidates will rise up with an understanding where the current members have taken the district in recent years and with a commitment to carry on that work.

“School board members don’t think sufficiently enough about the succession issue,” agrees Don McAdams, a former school board member and chair of the Center for the Reform of School Systems, a Houston-based nonprofit training and consulting group for school leaders. “Even some who do are very reluctant to get involved in it.”

That reluctance makes little sense. Many have heard tales in which newly elected board members had little understanding of past decisions—and destroyed years of work by taking a district in a new direction. Most have heard of new members with a single agenda on their minds and a willingness to disrupt the board’s cohesion to get their way.

Which begs the question: With years of effort to move the district forward, why do school board members leave their legacies to chance? Why does their strategic vision not encompass a plan to ensure good people serve on the school board in years ahead and build upon the hard work already done?

Dealing with “politics” Such a strategic focus on the future is, in fact, crucial to school reform efforts and to a district’s long term success, says Dean Langdon, a field services director of the Illinois Association of School Board (IASB). “Good school board leadership requires continuity,” he says. “You don’t want to let all that good work you’ve been doing as a board of education fall by the wayside at every election cycle.”

So why don’t more boards take a proactive approach to succession issues? A big reason is that members have little spare time and prefer to focus on what they see as really important: the needs of students, says Fred Botterbusch, president of the Dallastown Area School District and immediate past president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

“I think most school board members are so focused on what they want to do on behalf of the district...and working so hard for student achievement, that some of these other things that make this possible get a lower priority,” he says.

Also working against good succession planning is a reluctance to get involved in what many board members see as “politics,” as if that’s somehow a dirty word for school boards. Board members also express concern about a backlash if they’re seen as too aggressive in handpicking future members.

“We’re not about making enemies,” says Lloyd “Skip” Jenkins, a school board president in Plano, Texas. “Whoever gets elected, we are going to have to work with them and try to build a team together.”

However logical those reasons, they’re not good enough to justify sidestepping the issue, say board veterans. The reality is that, done correctly, school boards can develop a pool of future candidates—without anointing a specific individual—and positively influence the board’s future composition without ensnaring themselves in base politics. Indeed, a well-crafted succession plan actually can earn kudos from the community and future candidates.

Growing future leaders One promising model to achieve this goal can be found in Texas’ Austin Independent School District (AISD), where school officials have garnered national attention for their AISD UpClose program. Community members are invited to a series of meetings with school leaders to learn how the district operates and to discuss policy issues. The goal is to develop a pool that will serve on school advisory committees, advocate for the district in the community, and perhaps, one day run for the board.

A similar program has existed in the Richardson, Texas, schools for five years. “It’s not a program specifically to recruit school board members, although folks have run for school board as a by-product of learning more about the district,” says district spokesman Tim Clark. “We also think that folks who are considering running for the board also have been attracted to the program.”

Such leadership-building programs create a better community understanding of what the board is doing—and foster a common vision for the district. So, even if future members might not agree about everything, they’re less likely to campaign in ignorance of the issues and the district’s challenges.

“If school board members want to sustain any kind of legacy, they need to build broad public support for what they’re doing,” McAdams says. “You don’t want people running for the school board who say, ‘Elect me. I’m a change agent and will turn this sucker around.’ It would be great in school board elections if candidates could run saying, “This district is on a good path, and I really want to help this district move faster down that path.”

McAdams’ organization is advocating succession planning with the districts it works with in Texas—and across the nation. And Illinois districts are paying attention to the issue as well, thanks in part to IASB, which this year released a new publication, Recruiting School Board Candidates. Jim Russell, IASB’s associate executive director for communications, says the “very popular” publication already has been snatched up by officials in 175 local districts.

One motive for IASB’s effort is a general candidate shortage in some local races—and a need for advice on identifying what makes an effective board member, how to find qualified candidates, and how to recruit and mentor them for future leadership roles.

“We are trying to put together some tools for school board members to use well in advance of the election process…and to get them to continually think about who the next set of board members are going to be,” Langdon says. “There are many good people in the community who just need a little tap on the shoulder to encourage them to run. We want to give [board members] some tools about how to start that conversation.”

Any resources should prove helpful. Officials in Durham, N.C., have relied largely on trial and error to implement a program promoting better-informed candidates. In 2008, they invited two nonincumbent board candidates to sit down with school officials to learn more about the district.

“We brought both of them in, met with them as a board, explained what reform work was going on, what things we are required to do,” says school board Chair Minnie Forte-Brown. “We wanted to bring them up to snuff.”

The outreach worked well, and having heard of the leadership-development efforts in Texas, the board attempted to expand its efforts, inviting anyone interested in running in this year’s board elections to come to a briefing with school officials. Alas, some participants at the public meeting undermined its effectiveness with needless criticism and bickering.

“They were just grandstanding,” Forte-Brown says, and as a result, “the meeting was not as productive as it could have been.”

Durham officials haven’t given up, however. After the filing deadline, Forte-Brown says, another briefing will be scheduled— with “a more controlled environment” allowing official candidates and school leaders to communicate uninterrupted.

Bold intervention A more novel—and somewhat controversia—approach to board member recruitment can be found in Aldine, Texas.

There, departing members traditionally resign early to allow the school board to appoint a replacement. This allows the board to appoint a like-minded colleague who then has the advantage of running in the next election as an incumbent.

Six of the seven sitting board members originally were appointed, and that’s helped ensure a remarkable consistency in the district’s leadership and strategic direction: Over the past quarter century, says school board President Alton Smith, he believes only one sitting member has lost an election.

“We get criticized for that, but we also get accolades because we don’t have some of the problems that other boards have in the surrounding area,” he says. “We see a need to have experienced and good people on the board rather than folks there because they’re interested in moving up politically and serving their own interests.”

It’s hard to recommend such an approach. As Smith is quick to point out, the board doesn’t formally encourage early resignations—it’s a custom that simply evolved out of a series of individual personal decisions. “That has worked well for us,” he says, but then notes, “You could have terrible boards appointing terrible people…It can be good or bad.”

Some are uncomfortable with any practice that appears to take decisions from voters—or smacks of “politics.” This explains why board members often feel uncomfortable endorsing a particular candidate—or sharing mailing or donor lists.

Some argue such thinking isn’t necessarily correct. Nothing in the rule book says you can’t help your favorite candidates in an election, and the political activity of a departing board member won’t necessarily reflect back on the rest of the board.

“School board members somehow don’t like to think of themselves as politicians, but, in fact, they are,” McAdams says.

It certainly isn’t politically harmful to groom future members when no election campaign is under way, board veterans say. Nothing is particularly controversial about encouraging community leaders to run for office—nor is grooming a cadre of business leaders, PTO officers, and leading citizens for leadership roles.

“If they have people in their community who would make good school board members…give these people a chance to learn more about the district,” McAdams says. “Getting these people appointed to task forces—gives them more knowledge and also helps people to get visibility they’ll need later to run for office.”

Actively mentoring such prospective leaders also is well within the board’s prerogative. “Give them things to read,” he says. “Invite them to attend committee and board meetings.” In Aldine, Smith is doing exactly that, mentoring a former alumnus of the Teach for America program, which is encouraging interest in school board service.

If your board has a strong consensus of where it wants to take the district, don’t wait too long to focus on succession issues, Botterbusch says. His board made that mistake, and recent elections have installed members with competing views about the future. That doesn’t mean his school board doesn’t get along, but with polarized views on policy, any future recruitment efforts could cement the board split.

“Where you get some polarization on the board, it becomes a little more difficult,” he says. “If someone is going off the board…if you have some polarization on the board, you want to get representation of your viewpoint more strongly represented. I think that is something that can happen.”

Doing nothing also raises the risk that others will take matters into their own hands. A decade ago, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan organized his Coalition for Kids to put his own slate of candidates into office, an effort attempted again by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa more recently. In small communities, school boards also have seen local groups—promoting anti-tax, anti-evolution, or single-issue platforms—recruiting and campaigning for candidates with little interest in their boards’ strategic vision.

Having spent some time studying districts with a national reputation for raising student achievement, Forte-Brown says it’s clear that the more successful ones have school boards who are paying some attention to recruiting leaders to carry on their good work. And she’s hoping Durham will join them.

The best school boards, she says, “grow their future board members. They ensure there is some consistency, and there is a sense of oneness, of purpose that has a laser-like focus.”


Del Stover is a senior editor at American School Board Journal. Reprinted by permission from American School Board Journal, July, 2010. Copyright 2010 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.

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