Prowling teacher aims to save big money for schools

Former JLS English teacher investigates errant light switches in the dead of night

Can simple behavior changes by teachers -- shutting doors, unplugging classroom televisions -- save millions of dollars in utility costs for cash-hungry Palo Alto schools?

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 at $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

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Like this comment
Posted by summer
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

They are going to lose any savings once they install the required air conditioners in elementary schools required due to the calendar change.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 7, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Required air conditioners? Required by who?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Don't be silly. As soon as the schools and the rest of us start using less, PA Utilities will put the charges up because they are not making enough revenue to pay their bills.

Like this comment
Posted by summer
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 10, 2011 at 8:21 am

By kinders sitting in 100 degree classrooms in early August. Fine for those in Paly/Gunn in their air-conditioned classes.

Like this comment
Posted by Wife of M.D.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2011 at 8:38 am

Navarro is a waste of money for the school district.

Navarro should not lessen the time that the water runs because it will become a health issue. Soap needs to contact hands for at least 15-20 seconds to kill germs on the hands. And then they need time to be rinsed off. From the Center for Disease Control:

"What is the best technique for washing my hands to avoid getting the flu?

Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. CDC recommends that when you wash your hands -- with soap and warm water -- that you wash for 15 to 20 seconds."

Navarro states: "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."

No! Then the person gets germs on their hands again when they press the faucet to continue rinsing their hands. Navarro is misinformed and germs will be spread because of her.

Like this comment
Posted by Roger
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 10, 2011 at 10:18 am

Correction: "The first $100,000+ of savings" will go to paying for a teacher not teaching!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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