Araceli Martinez Ortega for New America Media / La Opinion

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Vince Wolfe, The Met High School’s Vice Principal, points to sensors that turn off climate control systems when students leave the classroom. (Araceli Martinez/La Opinion)

A model of energy efficiency, The Met is where most schools in the state would like to be, and thanks to a new funding stream many could get that chance.

Sensors in the Met shut off air conditioning and heating systems when students leave the classroom, and fluorescent lights have replaced incandescent ones in the school’s lighting system. Large windows let in abundant sunlight while effectively blocking out noise.

“Greening our schools will save us energy costs, give our kids healthier places to learn and prepare our students for future jobs in a green economy,” said Jonathan Raymond, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD), at an event celebrating the completion of renovations to the school last year.

The new Met looks more avant-garde than your everyday public school building. It’s the result of a $7 million renovation of an old downtown building funded by a school construction bond approved by city voters in 2002.

In the last few years, a broad drive toward sustainability has reached into the classroom, with green schools sprouting up across the country. Green schools are lauded as a win-win proposition – cutting energy costs through more efficient building and school systems and creating healthier environments that studies show boost academic performance.

Still, while The Met exemplifies these features, a majority of the state’s schools remain far behind and are in dire need of renovation. Funds to upgrade school buildings have typically come via local measures that were unevenly distributed throughout the state. Few made it to low-income districts.

But that could change, thanks to a new measure approved last year.

Leveling the Playing Field

In November 2012, voters overwhelmingly approved Prop 39 — the California Clean Energy Jobs Act. The measure requires out-of-state corporations to pay taxes based on the percentage of sales made in California, just like other employers.

With its implementation, the state will receive $1 billion a year. Half that money will go toward upgrades for the oldest schools in the state. The improvements could lead to significant savings in energy and utilities. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that 40,000 jobs will be generated as a result of the measure.

Three-fourths of schools in the state are more than 25 years old, according to research from the office of state Senator Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles). These older schools tend to lack sufficient lighting and often times have insulation, heating, air conditioning, and plumbing problems.

“$2.5 billion will be distributed in the next five years to energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in schools across California,” said De Leon, who was the campaign co-chair of Prop. 39.

De Leon said that distribution of Prop. 39 funds would be weighted toward school districts with more high-need students. These districts could get as much as 15 percent above what other districts receive.

The recent budget adopted for the fiscal year 2013-14 already allocates more than $460 million for energy projects at K-12 schools and community colleges. But it also requires the California Energy Commission (CEC) to develop guidelines. Each school district must apply to the California Energy Commission to receive their funding.

Sen. De Leon’s staff expects the application process to begin by the spring of 2014.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s office estimates about half of California’s 10,000 schools could benefit from the added revenue.

In Los Angeles Unified, the second largest district in the country, energy bills routinely top $105 million a year. Of the 650 schools in the district, 59 are using solar energy or are in the process of building solar power systems, according to Richard Luke, LAUSD’s deputy director of planning and development.

The first project was launched in 2010, Luke said. LAUSD now generates 21 megawatts of solar electricity, providing savings of as much as $400,000 per year.

“The plan is to save $142 million in energy costs over a 20 year period,” Luke said.

Benefits to Children’s Health

De Leon said that greening the school environment through improved ventilation systems and energy efficiency will also improve children’s health.

“The lack of fresh air in schools greatly affects children with asthma,” he said.

 There is a direct connection between levels of asthma, poor ventilation, mold and carcinogens in the walls of dilapidated schools, according to Kate Gordon, the vice president and director of the energy and climate program for Next Generation.

“A third of classrooms in the state are in portable buildings, many of which are desperately in need of maintenance and energy improvement, and in fact, some are toxic due to the chemicals they contain,” she said.

A 2012 report by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools in fact shows the state spent billions in recent years on installing these portable classrooms, funds that were initially intended for energy improvements.

According to the Green Schools Initiative (GSI), founded in 2004 by a group of parents and environmental activists, California schools lose more than $30 million a year because of missed days due to asthma, the leading cause of absences in schools.

Jane Warner, president of the American Lung Association, said that increasing energy efficiency would reduce air pollution that causes asthma and lung disease.

“In the process of improving school buildings, Prop 39 will remove lead, asbestos, mold, and other substances in schools,” she said.

Such health concerns are particularly pronounced among California’s more low-income districts, which tend to suffer from higher rates of toxins in the classroom and from sources of pollution nearby.

Assembly member Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who backed Prop. 39, said current funding “is significant,” but too little to get the job done.

“The monies that we are able to provide are not enough to do what we want in every single school facility across the state,”  Skinner said. 

This story was produced as part of a 2013 NAM Fellowship on Energy and The Environment for Northern California Ethnic Media (a collaboration with SoundVision Productions’ Burn: An Energy Journal) with the support by S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and PG&E.