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Saving, one flippin’ switch at a time

(Sept. 26, 2014) Worcester County’s public schools are cutting costs one light switch at a time.

It might seem trivial, but small measures such as flipping a switch saved about $200,000 in electricity last year — around 10 percent of the 14 district schools’ power bill, said Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert.

About $60,000 of those savings are going back into the 11 schools that cut their costs, he said.

“We just looked at what we use and what we do on a daily basis to really try to cut into it,” said Tom Sites, principal at Berlin Intermediate School that cut its electric costs by more than 20 percent last school year.

Since the board of education passed down the power-saving plan to the schools two years ago, BIS has taken measures from turning off the lights in empty classrooms to leaving the blinds up and lights off on sunny days, turning off drink machines during evening hours and on weekends and leaving the lights dimmed until students arrive in the morning.

“It’s adding everything up, really,” Sites said.

There was no formal list of measures going into the energy-saving project, he said, so it became a trial-and-error process. Some measures, such as turning off lights in certain part of the hallways, didn’t work.

“We made safety our most important factor. We didn’t want to do anything that would make it unsafe for light or (affect) instruction,” he said.

The initiative is “more than just electricity,” said Cedar Chapel Special School Principal Belinda Gulyas.

“In each classroom, students’ job is to make sure the lights are off when they leave,” she said. “We’re having a great time doing it.”

The Snow Hill school came second in savings last school year behind BIS, boasting more than an 18 percent reduction in its electric bill. The school will use the kickback for in-house improvements, Gulyas said.

“Students in wheelchairs have a lot of trouble accessing a whiteboard, so we are looking into buying a cart that tilts the whiteboard so students can access it,” Gulyas said. “There’s a big incentive to it, so we’re working on it.”

Once the initiative was passed down from the county board of education, it reached staff through meetings and conversations and became a type of competition, she said.

“We started in the top five (energy-saving schools) last year and once we got that award, we tried even harder,” she said. “Because there’s an incentive for it… it really has become a game around here.”

While each school sees part of its electric bill savings come back, the board of education retains the rest, helping offset costs like maintenance for aging buildings and transportation, Tolbert said.

“That’s less money that have we have to ask the county commissioners to provide,” Board of Education Vice President Jonathan Cook said. “It’s innovation and it’s what we need right now.”

“The kids are getting excited about it,” Tolbert added, promising the program will continue this school year.

BIS plans to us its $12,000 check to purchase more technology, helping meet the one-to-one goal of having one device for each student.

“It benefits everybody,” Sites said. “The county saves, the kids get more technology. It’s a win-win.”

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