Green schools may cost too much, Malone says

Staff WriterApril 14, 2010 

  • School administrators Tuesday presented an update on plans for building a new high school in Rolesville.

    Despite pressure from elected officials to speed up the work, administrators said the earliest they expect to open the school is July 2014.

    There have been calls to speed up the work since the new school board majority voted in February to scrap the proposed Forest Ridge High School in northeast Raleigh in favor of alternatives in Rolesville. Administrators had warned that switching sites could cost $15.4 million more and delay the school's opening by two years.

    Staff writer T. Keung Hui

— Wake County's environmentally green schools may be costing too much financial green for members of the school board's new ruling majority to keep in building plans.

Chris Malone, chairman of the board's facilities committee, called Tuesday for a financial review of Wake's green building efforts, which have led to features such as waterless urinals, natural lighting and recycled building material. Malone said these features can increase costs by as much as 5 percent and may no longer be justifiable when cash-strapped school leaders will need to ask voters in the next few years to approve a school bond referendum for hundreds of millions of dollars.

"If we want a bond issue approved, we have to show voters we're saving dollars," said Malone, one of four newcomers swept into office in the fall.

But supporters of green schools said abandoning these efforts would be shortsighted. Green-school features are supposed to save money in the long haul, with lower electric and water bills because of greater efficiency.

"I understand that these are hard economic times, but the costs will ultimately come back to the taxpayers," said Bae-Won Koh, chairman of the Triangle chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. "They'll have to pay more later."

Wake County voters last approved a school bond issue in 2006 for a record $970 million. Plans for a follow-up bond issue have been delayed because of the national recession.

With the possibility of a bond issue going to voters in 2011 or 2012, Malone said Tuesday that it's time to spend the next few months considering the planning assumptions that will be used for the next school building program. Among the areas targeted for review by Malone are Wake's long-standing efforts to design schools to be in compliance with the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

The U.S. Green Building Council says LEED building standards can substantially reduce the emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. More than 1,100 schools have registered across the country for the LEED program.

Benefits suggested

Malone's call for a review occurs a week before Earth Day and at a time when global warming is a hot topic. Malone said he believes that man is causing the climate to change but thinks it uncertain whether humans are the major reason.

Wake school administrators have noted that waterless urinals reduce water use by 20 percent and that designing buildings to use more natural lighting instead of electric lights can cut energy use by 20 percent to 30 percent.

Doug Brinkley, past chairman of the Triangle chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, also touted how green schools can help improve student learning by ensuring good air quality. Schools can use paints that don't release as many chemicals into the air that can irritate people.

"It's more than just about saving money; it's about the health of those inside," Brinkley said.

Skeptical of claims

But Malone said those cost savings might not be as great as people claim. Malone said he's heard of schools that have had to close window blinds because the natural light is too bright or put duct tape over sensors to control the air flow because it gets too hot.

"I'm for going green," Malone said. "But we need to look at the costs."

If the proposed review doesn't show cost savings from green features, Malone said he'd be willing to consider restoring them once the economy improves.

But Brinkley said that Wake might not have a choice about building green schools if new state requirements go into effect.

Malone said that in addition to looking at green schools, board members need to look at things such as design guidelines and whether Wake can use a less expensive heating, cooling and ventilation system.

"We need to examine all our options as we go forward," said school board member John Tedesco, vice chairman of the facilities committee and part of the majority.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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