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Legislation could help schools

Local leaders not sure if program will work for their districts

New legislation passed at the Capitol last week will give Oregon schools the opportunity to upgrade their facilities to be more sustainable. House Bill 2960, known as the 'Cool Schools' program, allows schools to apply for zero or low-interest loans for energy efficiency projects.

The bill, a campaign promise of Gov. John Kitzhaber and a pet project of Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland, was passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate. It combines a number of different funds already in existence in order to offset interest fees for schools completing these projects.

'For a while we were envisioning this as a pie chart, saying there are all these different things, what if schools had a way to access them all at once rather than getting a little from here and there?' said Deborah Burke, legislative assistant to Bailey.

Schools are not mandated to participate in the program, but they may apply to do so and will be selected and prioritized by the Oregon Department of Energy based on a list of criteria outlined in the bill.

'The idea is that you can make that investment as a loan, but you are going to save it over time through the lower energy costs,' said Andrea Watson, Reynolds School District spokeswoman.

As of now, local school districts are unsure how the new legislation will fit into their future plans and budgets.

'We have more questions than answers at this point,' Watson said.

Some schools are worried about the monetary aspects of the bill, like taking out loans.

'We aren't in a place to borrow money,' said Rick Larson, business manager for Centennial School District.

Watson said her concern is whether or not the savings will actually outweigh the loan costs.

'You only want to do this if at the end you are better off,' Watson said. 'We just have to be really sure there's not a big bill at the end.'

However, Terry Taylor, facilities manager for Gresham-Barlow School District, said that the opportunity for loan money is a welcome aid for projects within his district, like window, roof and light replacement.

'It will enable us to address some of the building upgrades where we wouldn't be able to do that before,' he said. 'This will help us in those areas where right now we don't have the fiscal capacity to do those projects.'

After determining the financial realities of the bill, those schools that choose to participate in this four-year pilot program could have new, energy efficient construction projects on the way.