Conservation has them seeing green

Hillsborough schools are trying to trim their electric bills - and help their bottom line.

By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

TAMPA - The energy police are on patrol.

Hillsborough students monitor the kilowatts recorded on school meters. "Energy mentors" look for leaky doors and windows. Nighttime security officers take note of lights left on in empty classrooms.

The school district is experiencing a green awakening, one that could help its bottom line. The nation's eighth-largest school district is trying to trim an electric bill that hit $35-million in recent years while ramping up recycling efforts that can bring money to schools.

The work is just getting started. Of Hillsborough's more than 200 schools, only 70 recycle paper, 18 recycle printer cartridges and cell phones, and 14 recycle aluminum.

But that's progress from a year ago.

"We have a long ways to go, but it's very encouraging the way it's caught on," said James Marohnic, who oversees the district's recycling efforts. "Every day we get more contacts from people who want to be involved."

In January, the district tapped grant funds to hire three full-time energy conservation mentors to coordinate efforts. Among their charges: energy audits at each campus.

David Turner, one of the mentors, runs his palm along door frames to see if cool air is leaking out.

"I've got pictures of where the air conditioning is running and the door is propped open," he said, noting that the waste is not intentional. "Most people don't intend to waste energy. They've become used to behaving in a certain way that is not necessarily good for conservation."

The district's aim is to reduce energy bills by 10 percent in a year. Already, Turner says, the campuses that he monitors are closer to seeing a 30 percent reduction.

Schools have an incentive to think green. If they meet their targets, which are based on past usage rates, they can share in the savings. Elementary schools can earn up to $4,000, middle schools $7,000 and high schools $10,000.

Energy patrols are key

At Symmes Elementary in Riverview, the front marquee proudly says, "We recycle." Students compete to bring in the most aluminum cans and inches of paper.

"It's a real-world, life skills project," principal Susan Marohnic said. "It's something that everybody can do every day, regardless of age or what's going on with the weather."

Symmes recycles paper, aluminum cans, printer cartridges and cell phones. Marohnic credits the energy mentors, one of whom is her son, with helping to ramp up the school's program in the past year.

And companies will pay for the recyclables. With the rewards, Marohnic plans to bring a Museum of Science and Industry "field trip" to campus. She notes the savings of gas by not transporting students there. A longer-term goal is raising funds for a covered play court.

The Symmes energy patrols are key to the effort. The select group of fourth- and fifth-graders has the power to write up classrooms if they catch lights and computers monitors left on.

The student patrols are learning how to read the utility meter outside and will take the results back to the classroom for math lessons like charting. They also will help detect problems that crop up on campus.

"Without these energy patrols, it may be two months before it's discovered, by the time we get the bills," Turner said.

Symmes is among a handful of Hillsborough schools already working with energy patrols. Eventually, the district wants the concept to spread across Hillsborough. Middle schools will deploy "energy detectives" and high schools "energy specialists."

Symmes third-grader Quentin Clark is too young to be an energy patrol, but he already has the spirit. He asked his father, grandma, cousins, aunt and uncle to bring recyclables to the school.

"Recycling could help the world," the 8-year-old said.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast facts

On the Web

For more information about Hillsborough's energy conservation efforts, which superintendent MaryEllen Elia highlighted as a key initiative for this school year, visit http://energy.mysdhc.org.