Prowling teacher aims to save big money for schoolsCan simple behavior changes by teachers — shutting doors, unplugging classroom televisions — save more than a half-million dollars in utility costs for cash-hungry Palo Alto schools?
Former JLS English teacher investigates errant light switches in the dead of night
School officials think it's possible.
This fall, JLS English teacher Rebecca Navarro has switched jobs to become the district-wide energy coordinator, charged with making it happen.
She aims to use "positive peer pressure" rather than command-and-control techniques.
Navarro can be found prowling campuses at midnight or at 6 a.m., checking to see what might be causing random classroom lights to switch on at odd hours.
She talks to former teaching colleagues about simple ways to save energy, such as unplugging chargers that are not in use and keeping classroom doors shut while the heater or air conditioner is running.
Officials think such low-hanging fruit can slash $600,000 from the school district's annual $2.4 million energy bill in the first year, $10 million over a decade — and educate kids and teachers to boot.
The first $300,000 of savings from the energy program would go to Texas-based contractor Energy Education Inc., which has contracts to help more than 1,000 school districts across the country — including 88 others in California — achieve energy savings.
The rest is gravy.
If savings aren't achieved, Energy Education will cover the cost of Navarro's salary.
"Energy Education has an answer to essentially everything," said Bob Golton, the Palo Alto school district's co-chief business officer.
"Any situation we might think is unique, they've seen it in North Carolina or Long Island or Chicago, and can answer it and quantify it."
For example, the annual electricity cost for the mini-refrigerators some teachers like to keep in their classrooms is estimated to be about $50,000. Navarro aims to "chip away at that number" by, for example, making sure the fridges are defrosted and unplugged during the summer.
Navarro's job is to take Energy Education's techniques that have worked elsewhere and apply them across Palo Alto's 18 campuses — two high schools, three middle schools, 12 elementary schools and Greendell, which houses preschool and adult-education programs.
She makes presentations to school staffs on the basics and troubleshoots when things go wrong or seem too difficult.
"A teacher might say, 'How can I unplug my television when it's so high up — that's too scary,' or 'I don't know how to turn off the heat in my classroom, so I just open the door,'" Navarro said.
"My job is to help with that. A lot of it is education."
In cases such as high wall-mounted televisions, school custodians can do the job.
Navarro ventured onto the JLS campus at 6 one recent morning to investigate reports of lights in several classrooms switching on in the middle of the night.
She's still not positive as to the cause but theorizes that ventilation may be rustling papers, which triggers the motion detectors.
"I think it was based on whether or not the teacher had a lot of papers displayed on the walls, or the placement of the flag in the room," she said. "It could be a matter of adjusting the time the ventilation comes on."
Some of the easiest savings will come from reducing the number of hours that classrooms are heated and cooled — but Navarro is hypersensitive about overstepping her bounds.
As a former teacher, she knows it can be touchy to tell someone her room won't be heated for as many hours in winter.
"Part of what makes this district so academically strong is the autonomy of classrooms, and it's important to maintain that even when we do something uniform in the face of energy. Sometimes people feel, 'Oh gosh, is this the start of a whole new way of the site operating?'"
Navarro also has been practicing with water timers in school bathrooms.
"I've timed how long it takes you to wash your hands, and 20 seconds is pretty generous," she said. "Some of these faucets run close to a minute before they stop.
"If someone wants to do a really good job of washing their hands and 20 seconds isn't enough, they can always press it twice."
— Chris Kenrick