Just like veins and arteries weave their way through the body to the heart so blood can be pumped through every inch of a person, 278 geothermal wells dug 500 feet into the earth encircle the building in a horseshoe shape leading to a “heart” in the school’s mechanical room.
White pipes, steel tubes and computerized equipment make up the entirety of the room that on a first glance looks like nothing more than a more high-tech boiler room. But the school’s geothermal system is a little more complicated, even though the main purpose is to reduce the school’s carbon footprint while saving the district money.
And money matters are what jeopardize the health of the Elyria Schools.
The district announced last month $3 million in budget cuts to stave off a projected deficit, including 59 positions — among them teachers, special education instructors and classroom aides and extracurricular programs such as the high school’s TV station and seventh-grade athletics.
In addition, Superintendent Paul Rigda is just starting the arduous task of trying to convince state legislators and leaders that his idea for how to fund the construction of new elementary schools is worth considering.
He wants the state to give Elyria $75 million to $80 million to build five elementary schools, without requiring voters to approve a bond issue and leave Elyria responsible for the entire cost of replacing the middle schools down the road. The figure is not just some pie-in-the-sky number. It equates to the roughly 52 percent the state said it would kick in to rebuild both the elementary and middle schools in a comprehensive project if taxpayers come up with the remaining 48 percent.
So far, Rigda’s attempt has been rejected from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission because state law would have to be rewritten to allow it.
But that has not stopped him from making the case that Elyria could greatly benefit from new schools. His biggest challenge could be convincing parents and taxpayers who see shuttered buildings in the district that they may think would suit the district’s needs just fine.
“We could be putting kids in new classrooms, we could be putting people to work, and we could be saving money because these (new) buildings would be energy-efficient buildings,” he said earlier this week.
Now, that the idea is out there — Rigda said he was reluctant to mention it because of the controversial nature of suggesting the state change its long-held policy of requiring the local community to contribute for such projects — he said he hopes to eventually get an audience with Gov. John Kasich.
Fifteen minutes to explain why the spirit of the law is to put kids into new buildings without penalizing them for what the community can’t or won’t approve is all he needs, he said.
Money in the bank
While the elementary buildings would be much smaller than Elyria High School, a 317,000-square-foot complex, it’s within reason each would have the same energy-saving technology as EHS.
Any new school built in Elyria would be energy efficient because it saves the district money, said Amy Higgins, district spokeswoman.
“We have yet to determine a dollar figure on the exact savings at Elyria High, but we are seeing that the building is easier to operate than a huge drafty school with a massive boiler.”
It may be too soon for Elyria to put a dollar figure on the savings, but school leaders have in Lorain, where, since a bond issued passed in 2001, a dozen new schools have been built funded with both state and local dollars.
Most districts will never see the same level of state support as Lorain — 81 percent from the state and 19 percent from local dollars — because more funding goes to poorer districts.
“We have everything from lights with motion sensors that shut off when no one is in the room to new heating and cooling systems that we control at the district office,” said Jeff Hawks, Lorain’s associate director of operations. “We are saving money, and the money we save in utilities goes toward the kids.’’
With Elyria High School, the Elyria district has gone green in an attempt to be more energy efficient. The district is not alone.
Schools in districts that were approved for state funding after September 2007 are being designed to meet at least Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver certification, with a goal of meeting the LEED gold level.
The trickle-down effect of paying less for electricity can be felt in the classroom.
Lakota Schools, between Dayton and Cincinnati that serves roughly 19,000 students in more than 20 school buildings with an average age of 20 years, was facing a deficit and teacher layoffs in 2011.
But when school officials crunched numbers while preparing its budget-reduction plan, it realized it had saved enough money on energy costs equal to the costs of six teachers — average salary of $65,000 with benefits.
Chris Passarge, Lakota’s director of business operations, said it’s not just new buildings that are helping pad the coffers. In 2009, Lakota embarked on energy conservation programs funded by the state. The program allows strapped districts to borrow money without voters passing a bond issue to improve buildings and then pay back the loan with the cost savings.
“We started by just replacing lighting and eventually went to new chillers and boilers in some of the buildings,” he said. “In all, 14 to 15 schools of the 22 we have had some sort of energy-efficient program implemented. Over the past year to 18 months, I would say we saved over $1 million.”
Passarge said Lakota will be able to pay off its debt to the state and still realize a savings in a few years. Now, the district is excited to think of other ways to save money.
“Our budget crisis really drove us to look for ways to improve our buildings without asking for any additional dollars in our community,” he said. “Now, we can tell our consumption is lower not to mention our lower energy costs and our carbon footprint.”
Hawks said Lorain has saved more than $5 million over the last four years in energy costs.
“It’s just like putting a new furnace in your home. You will see your gas bill go down,” he said.
Now back to the mechanical room at Elyria High.
For 28 years, Bill Krugman worked in the boiler room at Elyria High when the building was a hodgepodge of structures built between 1894 and 1955. It was his job to maintain that beast of a contraption.
“It was a boiler, so it basically had one function,” he said Friday.
Krugman, the school’s building systems and grounds manager, said the technology in the new building relies on the earth’s natural ability to stay a consistent temperature. The geothermal wells, which are under a parking lot off West Avenue so repairs will not result in someone digging in the school, go down so far that temperature fluctuations don’t occur.
The wells are filled with propylene glycol, a liquid that does not freeze and absorbs heat. It stays 58 degrees all year round with 33,000 gallons of the fluid outside the building and another 17,000 gallons flowing inside for a total of 50,000 gallons.
“The Earth is always the same temperature so by the time the fluid gets in the building, it takes less energy to heat it or less energy to cool it,” Krugman said.
Once the propylene glycol reaches the building it is sent through pumps that circulate it to each individual room where a heat pump brings it up to room temperature.
Krugman said staff member can set their own temperature but only within 4 degrees of 70.
“You don’t want to waste energy by making a room too hot or too cold and then reversing it later in the day,” he said.
Other features include an energy recovery ventilation system that filtrates and circulates fresh air in the school and a boiler system that now serves to heat the water used in the school but if the geothermal system goes down can heat the propylene glycol with a series of heat exchangers.
Geothermal doesn’t give off additional gases that deplete the ozone. Plus, it uses roughly the same amount of electricity as traditional boiler systems but lasts 20 years longer.
The geothermal system, the most eco-friendly of the building’s features, cost Elyria Schools about $1.7 million. State funding picked up about one-third of the cost.
School officials estimated in 2007 that the energy savings will allow the district to pay off the installation cost in five years.