In this new year, voters should pat themselves on the back for delivering some stability to public schools. Voter support of Gov. Jerry Brown's increase in sales and income taxes (Proposition 30) stopped the precipitous decline in state funding for public schools over the last five years.
But 2013 also brings another bright spot for schools that has received less attention.
Voters passed Proposition 39, eliminating the menu of taxation options for out-of-state corporations and generating $1.1 billion a year in the process. Half will go into the general fund for legislators to distribute among all state programs, but half must go toward energy efficiency programs in the state's public buildings for five years.
As state Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, announced at Mark Twain Elementary School in Sacramento in December, strong support is building in the Legislature to focus the $550 million a year for energy efficiency on public schools.
That is a worthy priority for Proposition 39 funds, and Californians should get behind it.
De León has introduced an aptly named Senate Bill 39 to target Proposition 39 competitive grants to schools with above-average energy consumption in economically disadvantaged communities that partner with other agencies and include students in the planning of projects. He estimates that over five years, Proposition 39 used in that way could provide enough funds to retrofit half of California's 11,000 schools at $500,000 a pop.
Energy retrofits can reduce utility bills by 20 percent to 40 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. California schools spend $700 million on energy each year about what they spend on books and supplies. A one-third savings could save California schools $230 million a year.
More than 70 percent of the state's 11,000 schools are older than 25 years, making them ripe for energy retrofits. As the Center for the Next Generation reported recently, "The equipment used in these buildings for heating, lighting, cooling and ventilation is outdated, inefficient and often malfunctioning."
Simple improvements to reduce school energy costs include things such as installing high-efficiency boilers and advanced lighting controls to reduce electric lighting when daylight is sufficient or a room is unoccupied; making use of fresh air ventilation; replacing single-pane windows; better insulating walls and roofs; providing shade for east-, south- and west-facing windows; using solar reflective roofing materials.
The Sacramento area would be well-poised to take advantage of Proposition 39 competitive grants. Mayor Kevin Johnson, as part of his Greenwise initiative, has pledged to raise $100 million over 10 years to retrofit 15 million square feet of school facilities to reduce water and energy use by 20 percent.
The Sacramento City Unified school district has used local bond funds and matching state bond funds to retrofit schools. The district has created Green Teams at each school made up of faculty, students and parents who audit energy use at their schools and offer recommendations to the district.
SMUD also has worked with Sacramento City Unified schools to finance lighting retrofits that are saving the district $600,000 a year. Newly elected SMUD board member Michael Picker already is thinking of ways to help districts be more competitive for grants and to provide more apprenticeship and training opportunities for students.
One question facing lawmakers is whether the energy savings realized by school districts should be left to them to spend as they see fit. We think they should, with some limits such as a prohibition on using the money to pad benefits or create other long-term obligations.
SB 39 is a smart step toward assuring that California will get the biggest bang for the buck by passing Proposition 39.