Rock Hill schools figure they have saved thousands of dollars by switching to energy-efficient lights, urging employees to be more mindful of power use and shutting down campuses during holidays.
Associate Superintendent Anthony Cox believes they can do better.
Cox, with the school board's approval, is moving ahead with an ambitious plan to curb energy waste across the district's 27 campuses. His first order of business is to create a new energy manager job to monitor usage and work with teachers, principals and other staff to curb waste.
The annual salary will be roughly $65,000 including benefits, according to district figures. Cox also plans to spend about $18,000 on software, equipment and training.
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He predicts that the investment will more than pay for itself, saving the district $417,000 on its power bills within a year.
"We can't afford not to do this," he told the school board at its Jan. 24 meeting.
Not everyone is convinced.
School board member Jane Sharp questioned the wisdom of adding a new job while considering eliminating teaching positions.
"I know it's predicted to save six teachers' jobs, but that's in the future, and that's a prediction," Sharp said before voting against the plan.
Board member Ann Reid also was skeptical, but voted to give the idea a shot. Board member Mildred Douglas didn't vote.
"I abstained because I could see some positive things and some things that could be negative," she said in an interview. "They couldn't convince me that we don't have someone in operations that can do that."
The board voted 5-1 in support, with Douglas abstaining.
"The public has expected us to cut back, but you can't ignore sound business principles," school board Chairman Bob Norwood said. "We've got to have the financial fortitude to do something like this."
A school can expend a lot of unnecessary energy. Classrooms often are loaded with appliances - mini-fridges, coffee makers, decorative lamps. Computer screens are powered on all day. Lights illuminate empty rooms.
Multiply that by two dozen campuses, and it gets expensive.
The district spends about $4.4 million a year on energy, including electricity, natural gas, water and sewer. Rock Hill High's monthly power bill alone is $15,000, Cox said.
One of the energy manager's tasks will be to help teachers and principals spot waste and craft a conservation plan. The manager also would monitor usage and investigate spikes at all hours.
Eventually, the energy manager would visit classrooms to lead lessons on energy use.
"It will be the weirdest schedule of anybody in the district," Cox said. The energy manager is "a head coach and a counselor that can show us how to change habits without adding a burden.
"It's not somebody that's going to be going around changing light bulbs. I have had energy managers that have caught problems in schools before they became real problems."
Cox said his estimated 502 percent return on investment in the first year is conservative and could be much more. He points to two North Carolina school districts where he led energy saving efforts.
Catawba County schools, where Cox was once an energy manager, saved more than $1 million a year compared to what was spent several years ago, spokeswoman Carleen Crawford said.
Although the district eliminated its energy manager job last year to help manage budget cuts, it plans to continue the conservation effort, Crawford said.
Burke County schools' energy management program saved nearly $3 million in the last few years, said Superintendent Arthur Stellar, who launched similar efforts in districts in New York and Massachusetts.
Most Rock Hill schools are moving toward becoming more efficient. Over the last two years, the district installed timers on heating and cooling systems. Motion sensors automatically shut off lights in empty rooms.
One school is farther along than most. Ebinport Elementary this month received an Energy Star, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seal of approval signifying that it performs in the top 25 percent of similar facilities nationwide. Ebinport is the first South Carolina school to get a star.
Principal Shane Goodwin credits a campus-wide effort. The school replaced old computers with newer, more energy-efficient models. Teachers got rid of coffee makers and a dozen fridges. They pooled their money to buy two new, more efficient fridges, which they share.
"The teachers here feel a lot of responsibility for the environment," Goodwin said.
Cox aims to have a star on most campuses within two years.