In the early part of the evening, the committee met with the City Council to take on a question for the modern age: Is Auburn ready to switch over to solar power?
The joint workshop was to get the conversation underway.
City and school officials heard from attorney Adam R. Cote of the firm Drummond Woodsum in Portland, whose legal practice focuses on renewable energy providers, startups and regulated utilities.
Cote told committee members and city councilors that with discussion of solar energy on the rise in Maine, more school districts and cities are going solar for both financial and environmental reasons.
In other words, there might not be a better time for Auburn to go solar.
Cote, who has been practicing law since 2001, said there is “an enormous amount of solar development” happening in the state. “There are more projects going on right now in the state of Maine than I’ve seen in my career.”
Over the summer, the Maine Legislature passed four clea
n-energy bills that make solar power more attractive to investors, Cote said.
Attorney Agnieszka A. Dixon, also of Drummond Woodsum, told the groups it would be fairly simple to estimate upfront savings of a solar arrangement for Auburn and the School Department. However, estimating over a period of years is a little more difficult. Estimates based on historic energy use don’t always jibe with reality, Dixon said. And the cost of delivery, supply and transmission of solar power is always vulnerable to market forces.
How much could the School Department save by entering a 20-year contract? There are, Cote said, too many variables to make firm estimates.
“You might have a school close,” he said. “They might invent a light bulb that will use less electricity.”
After about an hour of public discussions, the group adjourned to executive session to discuss the matter with city attorneys. When it was over, the School Committee voted to allow Superintendent Katy Grondin to further explore the issue of solar power and to add the matter to future agendas.
More Maine schools have been bringing on solar energy than ever before, according to those who follow the markets. A new policy in Maine provides opportunities for municipalities and school districts to consider solar power.
In Farmington, energy officials said Regional School Unit 9 could save more than $150,000 per year on energy costs if directors decide to join a solar energy aggregate at Souther Farm in Livermore Falls. The school board there is presently mulling that proposal.
Later in the night, the School Committee got down to the yearly ritual of putting a budget together. It’s early in the process, but Grondin told the group that the process will advance with the following steps.
- Build from a zero base to address the needs for teaching and learning.
- Consider whether there is evidence of a strong return on investment.
- Consider School Committee budget priorities.
- Consider the connection to Vision 2030.
To stimulate the budget process, Grondin handed out sticky notes to committee members and invited them to jot down their thoughts.
“To see if there are some common themes, common goals from the group,” she said.
As it turns out, concepts including technology fees, teacher salaries, proficiency-based learning, class sizes, improvement in student scores, social workers and staff support were among the issues on the minds of those in the group.
How to bring it all together?
“This is when we have a lot of dialogue,” Grondin said. “How do we do everything we want with the funding?”
There was also the matter of fundraising for the new Edward Little High School to be discussed.
The $122 million school, built with mostly state dollars, will be the most-expensive high school in Maine, with a wing for career and technical programs, room for 1,100 students, geothermal heating and cooling, a top-notch athletic stadium with a turf football field and a 1,200-seat performing arts center.
Fundraising efforts to supplement state dollars kicked off officially once the project was approved in June.
The group discussed fundraising matters such as naming rights for large donors. Grondin said that as part of that, the fundraising committee has reached out to other school systems, including those in Sanford and Mt. Ararat, for guidance.
The committee spent a great deal of time discussing the possible duration of naming rights before tabling the issue until a meeting in March. The group plans to explore the matter further before the March meeting.
“There is work, obviously, to be done,” Grondin said.
The committee also fielded questions about the school system’s safety procedures after some parents asked when they should or should not expect to get robocalls during incidents at Auburn schools.
In one recent situation at the Auburn Middle School, not all parents were notified of the incident right away, although the parents of the involved parties were brought in for discussion, Grondin said. The incident did not develop to where a lockdown was required.
Grondin told the group that the school system is constantly reviewing its safety procedures and involving both parents and students in discussions.
“I want to assure you that we take safety extremely seriously,” Grondin said. “We’re always looking at those plans . . . I just want to assure people that if parents want to call me and have further discussion, I’m absolutely open to that.”
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