With the failure of voters to pass Long Beach Unified School District’s Measure T, the school district administration is searching for other ways to bridge a budget gap of over $100 million over the next two years. The ballot measure was meant to help narrow this gap by applying a $92 parcel tax on properties over the next five years; boosting school district revenue by $12.5 million annually. The special election received just 43% support, far short of the two-thirds majority necessary for passage. In a recent article, Ryan ZumMallen did a great job mapping out some options the school district administration is exploring to compensate for the projected deficit.
We could identify a range of possible reasons for the failure of Measure T, including an aversion to additional taxes during the current economic crisis, opposition to the resources spent for a single-issue special election, and the perceived injustice of placing a new financial burden solely upon property owners. Some voters might also have felt frustrated that Measure T was proposed so soon after Measure K, which was passed only last year (in November 2008) and garnered $1.2 billion for Long Beach school repair, maintenance, and improvements. But Measure K might be part of the solution to filling the budget hole left by the failure of Measure T.
Measure K, along with Measure E (benefiting Long Beach City College) and Measure I (benefiting the municipality) formed a trio of capital improvement bond measures to address long-deferred maintenance issues across the city. Both school initiatives passed with significant voter majorities, while the Measure I fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority. One reason for Measure K’s success in 2008 was that the school district administration, along with teachers and parents, did careful research to identify needs across the school district.
While not every dollar from Measure K was allocated ahead of time, spending priorities were established that are to give guidance to the administration, school board, and civilian oversight committee. It is with these priorities in mind that I modestly propose one new use for Measure K funds, one that would improve school district infrastructure while addressing the budget shortfalls that remains in the wake of Measure T’s failure. The suggestion is that the school district should invest in taking their nearly one hundred campuses “off the grid.” In effect, we could save green by going green.
Based on their budget this year and their proposed budget for next year, it appears that the Long Beach Unified School District spends over $11 million annually on utilities. At the same time, the district spends only the paltry sum of around $200,000 annually on energy conservation. This despite the fact that one established spending priority for Measure K is to install energy efficient systems when possible: for instance, retrofitting windows to provide better insulation, or replacing leaking pipes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, the least efficient schools use about three times more energy than the best energy performers. Given that many Long Beach schools are quite old, it is undoubtedly the case that increasing the energy efficiency of existing schools could significantly reduce the school district’s annual utility bill, saving millions of dollars a year.
However, we could take the goal of energy efficiency even further and explore the possibility of investing in renewable energy, so as to nearly eliminate the district’s electricity bill altogether. This opportunity exists because while Measure K does not directly address sustainability strategies like the development of on-site renewable energy generation, in general terms it does identify energy efficiency as a critical goal. One way to move toward this goal using Measure K funds would be to install solar panels on the literally dozens of acres of available rooftop area on our schools. This is not entirely a new concept; in February 2009 the Los Angeles Unified School District announced a $350 million dollar solar initiative, slated to generate over 50 megawatts of power per year by 2012. To fund this initiative, the LA Unified school district leveraged portions of their own $7 billion modernization and school construction bond, Measure Q.
The Long Beach School District could make its Measure K funds go even further in this regard by working with our local power utility. Southern California Edison continues to make significant investments in solar energy, providing financial assistance for homeowners and business owners retrofitting their properties with solar panels. The Long Beach Unified School District could provide an appropriate case study for developing a public-private solar initiative based on similar principles. Such a large-scale investment by Southern California Edison would likely yield more efficient results than spending a similar amount of money on other financial incentive programs.
Many things would need to happen for this idea to become a reality, ranging from negotiations with Southern California Edison to obtaining bids from solar installation contractors. There would need to be a discussion regarding the place of a renewable energy program in the school district’s capital improvement priorities; this discussion would need to take place within the School Board as well as with the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee (which was established to provide guidance for the expenditure of Measure K bond monies). However, I believe these discussions would be worth the effort. In terms of money saved, making our school district energy independent would almost be like passing a mini-Measure T: it would significantly help to close our budget shortfall. And since the goal of our school district is to educate our children, surely there is value in teaching students that energy conservation is good for the environment and good for the pocketbook.
Disclosure: LBPOST.com publisher Shaun Lumachi was a consultant to the Parents, Teachers and Taxpayers for Safer Schools - Yes on Measure T campaign.