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Cool Schools is a cool idea worthy of passage

This legislation is cool - literally. The Cool School program was unanimously passed by the Oregon House and Senate, and was signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber.

House Bill 2960 gives Oregon schools the opportunity to upgrade facilities to become more sustainable with energy usage. It works by allowing school districts to apply for zero- or low-interest loans for energy-efficiency projects.

This bill was a campaign promise of Gov. John Kitzhaber and a pet project of Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland.

It's not just the bi-partisan nod of approval that is worth noting - although it's a breath of fresh air. What is more important is the idea of giving schools an affordable means of accessing energy efficiency (saving dollars), using less energy (better for the environment) and improving the comfort and safety of students and teachers (improving the learning environment).

Even as it becomes law, this bill is attracting interest from schools from throughout Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. The Tigard-Tualatin School District, for example, plans to use Cool Schools funds to help enhance projects already paid for by a $20 million bond measure passed in November. Spokeswoman Susan Stark Haydon says the district will look at the 'big picture' of what its bond dollars cover, and look for any additional projects that the new funds could help support, such as more energy-efficient light fixtures and improved heating and ventilation systems.

Still, for some school districts facing extraordinarily difficult financial times, the Cool Schools program is likely little more than wishful thinking. In conversations with districts this week, here's what The Gresham Outlook heard from local districts:

• The Estacada School District has expressed initial enthusiasm, but added that the value of the program will have to be weighed against how the availability of funding and a promise of a measurable return.

• The Oregon Trail School District in Sandy sees potential of Cool Schools. The district already accesses energy-efficiency funds through Senate Bill 1149, whereby consumers pay a fee to PGE and PacifiCorp. That money is used by schools for energy-efficiency projects. With that in place, the district plans to invest in digital controls that monitor heating and ventilation systems. Then, the district will consider application for Cool Schools funds - or other funding sources - to repay the SB1149 loan, whichever is the best cost-saving route for the district.

One of the nice things about this bill is that it's not a mandate: Districts aren't forced into more debt. Had it done that, it may have forced struggling schools to decide between text books or windows.

It's also worth noting that schools that can really use the help with energy efficiency - providing cost savings - are those that are least able afford another loan. We hope these schools are not left out in the cold.