School Board denies energy contract

Published 9:23 pm Monday, April 16, 2018

Suffolk’s School Board last week voted against pursuing an energy performance contract worth $8 million.

The contract would have allowed the school system to make energy-saving improvements that would have been guaranteed to pay for themselves. But school board members said they did not believe City Council would support the additional debt.

Board member David Mitnick moved to approve the contract, but the motion failed 4-3, with Chairman Enoch Copeland, Lorraine Skeeter, Vice Chair Phyllis Byrum and Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck voting against the motion.

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The only board members to approve the motion were Mitnick, Linda Bouchard and Michael Debranski.

An energy performance contract allows work done to the schools to make them more energy efficient, and the savings over time will pay for the work. Energy performance contracts, by law, must remain budget neutral and pay for themselves, said Director of Planning and Facilities Terry Napier. If they don’t, the company that did the upgrades must write a check for the difference.

The School Board has looked at energy performance contracting, but the proposal that was presented was on a much smaller scale.

“The City Manager and I have explored performance contracting on a smaller scale, and it’s different than what you’ve seen,” said Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney. “This proposal includes the possibility of the school division borrowing $8 million to move forward with performance contracting.”

The proposal presented included “priority projects,” said Napier. It included HVAC updates at Lakeland High, Nansemond River High, Kilby Shores Elementary and Elephant’s Fork Elementary schools. Lighting would also be addressed at 11 schools in the $8 million proposal.

The board members that voted against the motion did so because they believe that City Council wouldn’t support the additional $8 million debt.

“There were eight people up there, the mayor and city council, and I didn’t see a whole lot of support for this,” Brooks-Buck said. “The city was not going to borrow the money, and that’s what they said at the last joint meeting.”

The superintendent reminded board members that even if they didn’t move forward with the energy performance, the city did propose to provide $2.5 million for five years in its Capital Improvement Plan.

“We got a feeling the three persons representing the city weren’t in favor of $8 million, but we were assured that we could get the $2.5 million for the next five years,” said Copeland.

Mitnick believed that $8 million worth of work in one year would be better than spreading it over the five years.

With the approved CIP, the city would provide $12.5 million in funding over five years.

Bouchard was vocal about her support for energy performance contracting.

“The $2.5 million per year, if we were to get that money, is coming directly from the taxpayers of Suffolk, but if we borrow $8 million then that ostensibly would be paid for by what we save in energy performance,” Bouchard said.

Board members were not sure if the money from the CIP still would come through.

“We don’t know if we do not borrow whether the city is going to come through with the $2.5 million,” Bouchard said. “The school board needs to get complete information so we can make an intelligent decision about this.”

Debranski requested a meeting with City Council, and Whitney agreed to make it happen.