Sometimes it takes money to save money.
The Saline Area Schools Board of Education voted Tuesday to authorize Superintendent Scot Graden to begin negotiating with Energy Education Incorporated, a district pledging to help the district save $1.9 million in utilities costs over the next four years.
The district will have to pay out close to $830,000 in the same time frame to achieve the savings.
The board voted 5-1 to pass the motion authorizing Graden to begin negotiations with the firm, which has worked with other school districts, including Milan, Chelsea and Lincoln. Trustees Chuck Lesch, Craig Hoeft, Todd Carter, Dave Holden and Dave Zimmer voted in favor of the motion. Board President Lisa Slawson voted against the motion. Trustee Amy Cattell was absent.
Graden said the district saved $100,000 in energy costs last year due to the mild winter and that the district wants to find ways to achieve those savings every year. With that in mind, Graden began talking to officials from other districts where the Energy Education program has been implemented.
“I tend to be skeptical about whether these kinds of savings can be attained. I talked to (Superintendent Bryan) Girbach in Milan and (Superintendent Dave) Killups in Chelsea and they said it achieved savings over time,” Graden said, likening the program to a “Weightwatchers” for energy. “If we follow the program, I am convinced it can be successful.”
Energy Education consultant Dennis McComb, former Superintendent of Milan Area Schools, said the company works with districts to offer hundreds of recommendations to reduce expenditures and save energy. Then the company offers an implementation methodology centered around assessment and planning, coordination, leadership and measuring against data.
One aspect of the program would see engineers and experts working with Saline’s heating and cooling and energy systems to achieve savings. Another element is to change the culture of the district. The behavioral aspect of the company is what sets Energy Education apart from others in the industry, McComb said.
The program was credited with saving more than $1.9 million in four years at Milan Area Schools.
If Saline adopts the program, it would be required to hire an “energy czar” who is responsible for implementing the program. McComb said former teachers are often the best people for the job because of their communication skills and familiarity with the district.
Trustees voiced support for the idea of saving money. However, even with the guarantee that the program would not result in a net cost to the district, Slawson had difficulty with the amount of money the district was paying out.
Trustee Zimmer suggested putting the contract out to bid. Trustee Holden agreed.
“I’m not opposed to spending $800,000 to extract that value (1.9 million). But can we get that value for $400,000?” Holden asked.
Trustee Craig Hoeft said if the program would save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, the board owed it to the district to move forward with the process.
If the district chooses to pay for the plan, they would pay out to Energy Education for the first four years. The district would continue to see savings long beyond, while the only remaining cost might be paying for the “energy czar.”
McComb allowed that achieving nearly $2 million in savings may be difficult in Saline. Work by Building and Grounds Manager Doug Bacon and Rob Mills has shaved 40 percent off the energy bills since 2008, Graden said.
The school district spent $1.3 million on utilities in 2011-12, down from $1.6 million in 2010-11, according to figures provided by Finance Director Janice Warner.