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California Schools Struggle to Take Advantage of Clean Energy Funding Windfall

Proposition 39 remains more of a promise than a proven success

Rows of smartly-placed solar panels, a green bounty of veggies and herbs planted next to sleek buildings wired with highly efficient lighting systems — to an unknowing visitor of the San Mateo County Community College district, California Clean Energy Jobs Act (aka Proposition 39) has fulfilled its intended purpose in splendid fashion.  “Our district was prepared, we already had the resources and support,” facilities manager Karen D. Powell says. “Other districts were not like us.”

photonamePhoto courtesy of California Solar Schools A solar installation at Mt Diablo High School in Concord, CA. For many school districts,
however, energy efficiency is a luxury when faced with chronic problems like aging buildings
and little to no scheduled maintenance funding.

Touting energy efficiency and education over corporate greed (a wonderful recipe for the liberal Golden State), Proposition 39 was the cool kid on the block during the November 2012 statewide elections, easily passing with 61 percent of the vote. Sponsored by the billionaire-turned-sustainability-philanthropist, Tom Steyer, the proposition closed a corporate tax loophole and redirected the new funds — an impressive $550 million annually — from the General Fund to the Clean Energy Job Creation Fund.

Beginning in 2013, $428 million was made available through a grant program for energy efficiency retrofits in California community college and K-12 districts, with 11 percent allotted to community colleges and 89 percent to K-12 schools. The California Community College Chancellor’s Office and California Energy Commission were charged with distributing funding based on annual proposals and number of full-time students in each district. The remaining funds were set aside for technical assistance and surveying as well as workforce training for disadvantaged youth and veterans.

This was the dream of a green economy, put into action. “People just really didn’t want to see money going out of state anymore. They wanted [money] to stay right here in California and they wanted to see more jobs in California too,” campaign consultant Christopher Lehman says. “Not just any kind of jobs, but green jobs that make California a better place to live and increases the quality of life. It just made all the sense in the world.”

But the vision has proved to be rosier than reality. California public schools were hit hard by the economic downturn. For many districts, energy efficiency is a luxury when faced with chronic problems like aging buildings and little to no scheduled maintenance funding. Small and overworked facilities staff — and the fact that many facilities personnel lack the energy engineering expertise required for identifying Proposition 39 projects — has hampered the process.

“A lot of districts out there were really hit hard by the economic recession. Many districts’ staff had been gutted and resources are still really limited,” says Joe Fullerton of the San Mateo County Community College district. “Whether it’s $100, $1,000 or $20,000, some districts may be very hard pressed to figure out where to spend the money because there are so many needs beyond energy efficiency.”

Anticipating this challenge, state lawmakers set aside money for technical assistance. The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office organized plenty of forums, conferences and advising for districts in need of support. Similar support was offered to K-12 schools. Marcia Smith of the California Energy Commission says that applications from K-12 districts for technical advising grants surpassed the amount allotted. “We have a waiting list of schools.”  

“The California community colleges have a very tightknit and small community, especially within the facilities group,” facilities manager Powell says. “We had great leadership on the state level from the Chancellor’s office that really made sure the community colleges had assistance with Prop 39.”

K-12 schools and community colleges that had already been working on sustainability and energy efficiency programs were, naturally, the best poised to take advantage of the sudden flow of money.

“For more than 10 years now, we have been working on energy efficiency programs,” Joe Fullerton of San Mateo County Community College District says. “Although we would have found funding elsewhere because these are important things to us, energy efficiency is a priority for us, Prop 39 allowed us to move forward faster.”

Lompoc Unified School District did not apply for technical advising nor see the need to. Tuan Nguyen, Lompoc Unified maintenance and operations manager, has energy engineering knowledge that greatly aided with the nitty-gritty of project calculations. “From my work in other districts, I can say that this is not common for schools,” assistant superintendent of business services at Lompoc Unified, Sheldon Smith, says. “Fortunately for our district, we had Tuan and we also already had an energy conservation plan in place. Without this, Prop 39 would have been a lot more difficult to apply for.”

For colleges that are behind the curve, the California Community College and Investor Owned Utility Partnership is there to help. Through an advanced incentive program for energy savings at community college campuses, the investor owned utilities aim to reduce overall costs of operation, preventing construction of new power plants and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The utilities also wanted to enhance its customer relationships. “We understand that the community colleges tend to be extremely resource constrained,” Erin Coller of San Diego Gas & Electric says. “So the CCC/IOU Partnership provides our community college customers with a variety of resources and services in order to assist them with their sustainability goals.”

Karen D. Powell of the San Mateo County Community College district says, “Without the heavy lifting of these utility partnership folks, it would be really difficult to get these projects off the ground.”

And for those community college districts outside of investor-owned utility areas, the Chancellor’s Office apportioned special funding for additional advising and support. “So that right there was huge in determining and getting all of those projects identified and put in place. That overcame many of the challenges that were out there for some districts that maybe could not afford this kind of support. The Partnership as well as the Chancellor’s Office got districts as far away as Blythe and College of the Redwoods in either direction,” Ron Beeler, outreach manager for the Partnership, says. “I mean, these were small districts that we were able to get support in getting their projects identified and funded.”

Fred Diamond of Citrus College, a leader within California community colleges’ sustainability initiatives, says that although energy efficiency is just one peg within a district’s sustainability plan, Proposition 39 funding is a great first step toward larger goals. Because Proposition 39 is distributed on an annual basis over a period of five years, it emphasizes smaller projects that have good savings-investor ratios, reducing a district’s costs of operations right away. “You have a shorter period of time, basically one year, to get your project into fruition,” Diamond says. “You just have to make sure you are being proactive and working the equation backwards, in order to make sure everything is done on time.”

As some colleges and school districts begin to show real accomplishments, more and more administrators are looking to take advantage of the program. More than 300 community college projects and 105 projects at K-12 school districts were approved for Proposition 39 funding this past Fiscal Year. Applications for Year Two from both community college and K-12 districts are predicted to increase from Year One’s baseline.

“I have not run across a college that isn’t interested in tapping the opportunities of Prop 39,” Susan Yeager says. Marcia Smith of the California Energy Commission agrees that an overwhelming proportion of K-12 districts are looking to apply for Prop 39 money. It’s just a matter of getting schools the support and advising they need.

“I’ve got to tell you, there were challenges. Having Prop 39 approved, coming up with guidelines and implementing things while you’re on the run,” Beeler says. “But you need to stand back and take a look at the successes and the opportunities provided by Prop 39. I think that anything worthwhile pursuing is going to be challenging. And, I think we’ve worked through the major hurdles, moving forward will be much easier now.”


Correction: Erin Coller was misidentified and Emily Coller in an earlier version of this story

Hanna MorrisHanna Morris photo
Hanna Morris is an intern at Earth Island Journal. She is studying Society and Environment with a focus in Global Environmental Politics at the University of California, Berkeley. Hanna is the communications director for the UC Berkeley Student Environmental Resource Center and founder of the Communicating Sustainability DeCAL.

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