School board seeks to buy out of energy program

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BEACON FALLS — Nearly a year and half after signing a five-year contract with a Texas-based energy conservation company, the Region 16 Board of Education is having second thoughts.

“I do not think they are doing anything for us,” school board Chair Priscilla Cretella said about the company, Energy Education.

The board is exploring the possibility of breaking its contract with Energy Education.

Energy Education is an energy conservation company that trains its clients to implement behavioral and organizational changes in order to reduce energy consumption. In February 2011, the board unanimously approved entering into the deal with Energy Education.

As part of the deal the board pays Energy Education an annual fee of $118,000 a year for the first four years of the deal and nothing the fifth year. The board is also paying a stipend of about $19,000 for an energy education specialist and bought energy accounting software to calculate the energy savings. The software factors in variables such as the weather when calculating savings and cost nearly $14,000 the first year, then nearly $2,100 a year after to run, according to figures presented by company officials last year.

The thought behind the program is the district will save enough money by following the company’s training to cover the cost of the program and realize net financial savings. According to the company’s figures presented last year, the company projected the district would have a net savings of $3.08 million over a 10-year period.

Mike Magas, the board’s part-time energy education specialist, presented figures to the board in June that showed the district saved, or avoided, nearly $161,000 in energy costs from May 2011 to April 2012.

As of this post, it was unclear whether the $161,000 was a net or gross savings.

The program’s costs in the first year were $154,000.

Over its last two meetings, the board has voiced concerns over the agreement and how the savings are calculated.

The $161,000 in estimated savings just barely reaches a threshold the company had to reach under the contract to avoid reimbursing the district some money.

“It’s very suspect,” said Cretella at last week’s meeting.

Business Manager Hugh Potter said his bone of contention is the company stated the district would not have to make any mechanical changes and would achieve savings just through behavioral modification. He said the district initiated a number of projects, such as installing control devices for the heating system at Algonquin School, which has lead to savings. These savings, Potter has argued, should not be attributed to Energy Education.

Potter said he didn’t want to paint Energy Education with a broad brush, saying the company has done some good things. However, Potter felt the company missed some issues in the schools it should have caught.

Under the contract, company representatives were supposed to perform a walk through in district schools and provide a list of energy issues in the buildings.

Potter said, while the company was not going to delve too deep, they missed some obvious findings such as a leaking boiler at Woodland Region High School that has been offline for years.

Many of the issues in the schools have been discovered by David Langdon, director of facilities and maintenance supervisor for the district, school officials said.

Board members Sheryl Feducia and Robert Hiscox said they were under the impression Energy Education was going delve deep into energy issues at the school and find things school officials couldn’t.

“I was under the impression we were going to get down to the nitty-gritty,” Feducia said.

Hiscox echoed her sentiments. “I thought they’d do more for us,” he said.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Tim James said Energy Education has acknowledged it underperformed in the first year and reduced the board’s fee by $20,000.

Despite the company’s admittance of underperforming and waiving some fees, the discussion at last week’s board meeting turned to breaking the contract with Energy Education.

Buying out of the contract would cost the district about $150,000 James said.

Cretella felt even if the district bought the contract out for $150,000, it would avoid having to pay more than $200,000 over the remainder of the contract in fees.

The board didn’t make a final decision on the matter. Rather, the board tabled the issue until it can get definite figures on the cost of buying out of the contract.