Thursday October 11, 2012

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. -- An energy project left on the table last month was approved by the Cambridge Central School Board of Education Tuesday after further discussion.

Board members heard opposing viewpoints but voted to move forward with the full scope of proposed work, pegged at $1.388 million. The work remains under state Education Department facilities planning review and includes a slate of efficiency measures including room occupancy sensors, more efficient lighting, building envelope sealing, and connecting the school’s two boilers.

Identified in committee and through an energy audit late last year, the items were grouped together into a proposed energy performance contract with MCW Custom Energy Solutions, one of four companies to respond to a Request For Proposals last fall. An alternative to bonding, energy contracting is a mechanism to fund projects of a limited size geared toward reducing operating costs.

Despite the focus on energy savings, "this isn’t really about saving money," said board member Paul Baker-Porazinski before Tuesday’s vote. "This is about doing some necessary improvements." The bulk of items had been included in a $17.9 million proposal rejected by voters last year.


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Referencing the room’s air ventilators, Baker-Porazinski said the units would still be drawing cold air in from the outside after everyone left the evening board meeting. New smart room occupancy sensors would allow those units to switch off, he said.

A joint meeting of two school committees Sept. 25 with MCW representatives gave board members more time to review and ask questions after the project failed to receive majority approval earlier that month. Following the committee meeting, board President Kerri Brown said she had a clearer understanding and was supportive of the full scope.

There was little discussion Tuesday about reducing the scope, and an included small-scale solar photovoltaic array went unmentioned, although the overall project’s merits were debated. Resident Rani Bass contested the idea that state aid was "guaranteed." Referencing state law and the district’s own bond prospectus, she said there was "no assurance" when or how much aid will be disbursed.

After a ballot proposition passed this May, CCS stands to receive about 75 percent aid under current formulas, but Bass pointed to a potential statewide fiscal crises resulting from unfunded school employee retirement contributions. Bass also asked what would happen if MCW, a Canadian company, closed its Saratoga Springs office.

Referencing a discussion with a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research’s Empire Center for New York State Policy, Bass said she was told building aid shouldn’t be counted on "unless it’s essential to keep the rain from coming in." (The Manhattan Institute’s mission is to "develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility.")

Resident Barbara Kingsley said the rain was coming in, but she was "hopeful and optimistic" the project would lead to a better environment, helping students learn and do their best. Kingsley contrasted making improvements with sniffling students breathing old air in a "crumbling school."

Board member Lillian Herrington said she was told there was "no guarantee" when she spoke to a state Education Department official, and said she thought the project should be tabled amid those concerns and points of topic raised by Bass.

Business Manager Beth Coates said there would always be qualifications but that state law "would have to change significantly" for reimbursement to be impacted. School Superintendent Vincent Canini said it was advantageous to move forward because building aid was the one revenue source that had not changed.

Baker-Porazinski said the discussion had revolved around "worst-case scenarios."

"I guess we can create scenarios (of) ... how this thing falls apart. ... What we’re talking about is not the likely outcome." He said the likely outcome was the district completes "a lot of really necessary repairs," saves money on fuel and electricity, and receives revenue without impacting the local tax levy. "I think we’ve been receiving building aid for years. I think most districts do. That’s just the way it’s done."

Raymond "Bud" Durrin, superintendent of buildings and grounds, said there were "lots of really good nuts and bolts things in this project" that, if not done, would continue "to suck dollars out of us."

A final vote was 4-1 with Harrington opposed.

Pending state approval, a timeline has the project completed by next August, piggybacking on construction from the school’s larger 2011 project. Once completed, the work is projected to save $87,897 annually in present-day dollars -- about 22 percent of what the district budgeted for heating oil and electricity in the most recent school year.

After factoring in state aid and debt financing, a net annual positive cash flow of $41,505 is estimated over the course of the 15-year finance term according to the district’s independent analysis.

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