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Green schools: Long on promise, short on delivery

9:32 AM, Dec 11, 2012   |    comments
Ruby L. Thompson Elementary School in Houston is a green school but is using lots of electricity (Photo: Thomas B. Shea for USA TODAY)
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(USA TODAY) -- The Houston Independent School District took a big step in 2007 toward becoming environmentally friendly by designing two new schools to meet a coveted "green" standard set by a private-builders' group.

The nation's seventh-largest school district added features such as automated light sensors and a heat-reflecting roof, in hopes of minimizing energy use.

But the schools are not operating as promised.

Thompson Elementary ranked 205th out of 239 Houston schools in a report last year for the district that showed each school's energy cost per student. Walnut Bend Elementary ranked 155th. A third "green" school, built in 2010, ranked 46th in the report, which a local utility did for the district to find ways of cutting energy costs.

Poor equipment maintenance plagued the schools built in 2007, a problem that districtwide improvements are now addressing, said Gavin Dillingham, the district's energy manager until August.

"People have the mistaken impression that once buildings are LEED-certified, they're always going to run energy-efficiently," Dillingham said. "They don't."

The problems in Houston illustrate the little-discussed uncertainty of "green schools," which promise huge energy savings and rising student performance, but do not always deliver, despite their extra cost.

Sixteen states, accounting for nearly half of the nation's 100,000 schools, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars for green-certified schools, or are requiring local school districts to follow a private green-rating system such as LEED in order to receive state construction funds. Another nine states have considered adding such requirements in the past two years, and many districts, in cities such as Houston, Los Angeles and New York, mandate green standards.

Green schools exist in every state and account for 45% of new school construction, up from 15% in 2008, according to researcher McGraw-Hill. By 2025, all school construction will be "green," McGraw-Hill projects. Building a LEED-certified school often adds 2% to 3% to construction costs, and as much as 10% in the case of a Selinsgrove, Pa., high school, state records show.


States and districts are spending more to build green schools even as they slash academic and extracurricular programs and amass multibillion-dollar backlogs of schools needing repairs and replacement.

In Ohio, the state is cutting $1.8 billion in aid to schools in 2012 and 2013 while agreeing to pay builders and designers an extra $160 million from a tobacco settlement fund so that 300 new schools can get certified under LEED.

In Illinois, where public schools need $10 billion in construction work, the state Capital Development Board opted to pay districts up to 5% extra to make their new buildings LEED-certified, as state law requires. The board has paid $800,000 extra per school project so far. With more than 300 schools needing replacement or additions, the extra payments could exceed $250 million.

Fueling the push for green schools

The green-school boom, a powerful and often costly phenomenon, is being driven largely by the Green Building Council, whose promise of student improvement and long-term cost savings has support from environmental and health advocates, teachers unions, school designers and the Department of Education.

"Green schools save money," the council declares in an 80-page guide for state legislators that cites one cost study - a council-funded report from 2006 that says certified schools use about a third less energy than conventional schools. The conclusion is based on estimates made before construction of 30 green-certified schools - including Washington Middle School in Olympia, Wash., projected to use 28% less energy.

The school consumed 19% more energy than a conventional school in its first two years, and 65% more than planned, a state report shows.

Another Washington report found that school designers "often overestimate the savings" in energy use, but that about 65% of a dozen green schools were shown to be more energy-efficient than conventional schools.

"It's often difficult to get real energy-performance data from schools," said Rachel Gutter, director of the building council's Center for Green Schools. Her evidence of savings is a single LEED-certified elementary school in Virginia that uses 40% less energy than a neighboring elementary school.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, awards points to buildings for features that aim to minimize emissions, water use, waste and indoor pollutants. A new school or commercial building needs 40 points out of a possible 100 for certification. Buildings are certified before occupancy based on design, with no penalty if they don't operate as promised.

In October, USA TODAY reported that thousands of commercial developers have won state and local tax breaks, grants, expedited permitting and waivers from development laws for LEED-certified buildings. More than 200 states, federal agencies and municipalities require LEED certification for public buildings. Roughly 85 cities including Los Angeles, Washington and Boston require LEED for some private buildings in hopes of helping the environment.

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