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PD Editorial: Energy plan gives schools more juice

  • Analy High School's new solar panels atop part of the school roof in Sebastopol Thursday November 17. (PRESS DEMOCRAT/MARK ARONOFF)

Proposition 30 provides a temporary funding boost for K-12 and higher education in California. The sales tax is up slightly, and affluent residents are paying higher income taxes.

But a second measure approved on November's ballot can continue benefiting public schools and community colleges long after those taxes expire, beginning in 2016.

Proposition 39 rescinded a costly tax break reserved for out-of-state corporations. It's expected to generate $1 billion in tax revenue annually, and for the first five years, half of it is earmarked for energy-efficiency work on public buildings.

In his budget, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed to dedicate all of the retrofit money to public schools and community colleges. If that's approved by state lawmakers, funding for solar panels and other renewable energy sources would add up to $450 million in the upcoming fiscal year and almost $2.7 billion over five years. That would go a long way toward making California schools the most energy-efficient in the nation.

Utilities are one of the largest overhead expenses for school and community college districts. A typical school district spends as much each year on electricity as it does on books and supplies, according to the state Energy Commission. By some estimates, energy upgrades could cut those costs by an average of 30 percent, which is one reason why so many districts already are exploring solar power and other renewable sources. They understand that smaller utility bills mean more money for classroom programs.

The budget summary says trimming energy costs "will in turn assist schools and community colleges in recovering from budgetary reductions implemented over the past five years."

Switching to renewable energy also would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to another vital public policy goal as California and the nation work to limit the effects of global climate change.

Until now, energy upgrades have largely been paid for with local school bonds, where the projects compete with other upgrades and deferred maintenance. Proposition 39 is a dedicated source of money for energy upgrades throughout the state. Spending it on schools is a good way to ensure that all parts of the state share in the benefit.

California has 11,600 public and charter schools, with about 6.2 million students. More than 70 percent of the schools are more than 25 years old, according to a report from the Center for the Next Generation.

There's another value to upgrading schools. It's a lot less expensive than building new ones. And with projections for the coming decade showing a sharp decline in enrollment growth, extending the lives of existing schools makes more sense than ever.


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