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Cool Schools worth supporting

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

House Bill 2960 gives Oregon schools the opportunity to upgrade facilities to become more sustainable in relation to energy use. 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 Kitzhaber and a pet project of Rep. Jules Bailey, D-Portland and had strong support from lawmakers.

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).

The West Linn-Wilsonville School District may want to take a close look at this. The Lake Oswego School District may consider Cool Schools for their conservation plan to achieve 'green status' for all district schools. Whether the bill would be a good fit remains to be seen as there has been no official district dialogue on HB 2960 since its signing by Kitzhaber.

Even before it became law, this bill attracted 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 try to find 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 this past week, here's what some local districts are saying:

* A Centennial School District spokesperson wonders whether enough funding has been placed in the fund to make it worthwhile, but more importantly, the district acknowledges it's in no position to borrow money.

* A Reynolds School District spokesperson expressed initial enthusiasm, but added that the value of the program will have to be weighed against the promise of a measurable return on the investment.

* A Gresham-Barlow School District official says the district is planning to use the Cool School loans, perhaps to replace windows, roofs or lighting fixtures.

* The Oregon Trail School District sees potential for the program in another way. 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 is considering 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 been that, it may have forced struggling schools to decide between textbooks 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 to afford another loan. We hope these schools are not left out in the cold.