Tom Mahoney is superintendent of Oregon Community Unit School District 220.
A well-worn and timeless axiom exists in education: there are always more things to do than resources available to do them. In Illinois, schools face changing statewide priorities, declining revenues and an increasing number of mandates and must-dos. Costs of construction and maintenance keep districts from doing work that is absolutely necessary for the health, safety and welfare of students.
Like many school districts in Illinois, Oregon Community Unit School District 220 (Oregon 220) faced significant needs to improve learning environments, physical plant and other infrastructure without obvious funding to support them. Revenue reductions, both state and local, and diminished resources are commonplace in Illinois education. But unlike some peer districts, Oregon 220 has proceeded with needed improvements and turned to a unique turnkey source to make them happen.
The initial work, reflecting the district’s highest priorities and most critical needs, will include geothermal HVAC and domestic hot water, electrical and energy management network upgrades, building automation, plumbing upgrades and energy-efficient security solutions.
Geothermal HVAC and domestic hot water: The HVAC system was woefully inadequate and was, for the most part, original to buildings. Many classroom systems were faulty, not providing enough fresh air to classrooms. Hot water systems were old and inefficient, and there was existing asbestos in HVAC piping. Replacing these with new “hybrid” geothermal systems results in better efficiency, higher levels of quality, longer use and better reliability, and adding air conditioning in two buildings that previously contained heating-only systems.
Electrical and energy management network upgrades: The existing electrical system was insufficient to accommodate new HVAC and classroom technology systems. Perhaps most troubling in this digital age, Oregon 220 didn’t have campus-wide wireless infrastructure. The new system provides infrastructure needed to meet current and future demands via a new telecommunication system and wireless cabling.
Building automation: Going back decades, the district had pneumatic system controls, which are notoriously inefficient, relatively ineffective and require almost constant maintenance, especially as they age. It is impossible to provide comfort and control of systems campus-wide with pneumatic controls. With this project, the entire system was replaced with modern, digital controls that are available for remote monitoring, management and diagnostic capabilities 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Plumbing upgrades: Like most aging infrastructure, district buildings had significant leaks and other plumbing issues. Key water lines were replaced to make them effective and reliable.
Energy-efficient security system: In the old system, visitors to several campuses could bypass offices and avoid signing in and identifying themselves, which represented an increasingly unacceptable security situation. Facility entrances were completely reconfigured, including security cameras with digital recording/storing. Now, tools necessary to control access are in place.
Added benefits: Reflecting the importance of STEM education, Oregon 220 is now considering in-class STEM curricula and programs, along with staff and faculty professional development. This year students were offered a connection to the prestigious Perry Initiative (Inspiring Women to Be Leaders in Orthopedic Surgery and Engineering). These programs provide enhancements to the district’s existing STEM education: hands-on education and a proven model for engaging and inspiring students in STEM-related areas of study.
“The entire cost of the first phase of work has been covered by a combination of savings, grants, rebates and Life Safety dollars,” per Board of Education President Ed Smith. This first phase will be a $7.5 million project, financed primarily with Life Safety Bonds. Even after the introduction of outside air and air conditioning, the project is projected to save $261,341 (net) over its life. After doing all the necessary work and paying for the loan and interest, the operating budget is left with funds to use to deliver on the district’s academic mission.
Oregon 220 has seen several areas of major benefit: improved safety, better instructional environments, single source accountability, reduced burden on staff, extensive professional development to empower staff and synergies that have reduced costs and added value for the district.
There are benefits, as well, for the wider community. Cost savings will stay local, and by employing local workers, constituents will benefit from this project with more money flowing into the local economy.
Critical in all this is the role of a private-sector partner doing what it does best: finding or building sources of capital and creating the most appropriate technologies and executing best practices. Public sector institutions like a school district are not efficient at attempting these functions when private sector alternatives are readily available.
“We selected a methodology that best addressed the educational, financial and operational challenges we face and helped us meet our objectives without draining internal resources,” explained Bruce Obendorf, Oregon 220 Board of Education vice president.
“Developing technologies and best practices are cost-prohibitive and require years of applied effort, requiring resources the district did not have. Together with OpTerra Energy Services, formerly Chevron Energy Solutions, Oregon 220 turned to a unique public-private partnership to uncover solutions that eliminate risk and burden to the district.”
In the current environment, of course, more needs are under consideration at Oregon 220, but the district is in much better shape to address them via this partnership approach.
Bill Nesemeier, district director of facilities and grounds, agrees. “Because this first phase of work has been so successful, we’re already considering a second phase,” Nesemeier said.
With so many challenges and seemingly endless bad news about the state of education in Illinois, it is encouraging to find solutions that do not further strain limited resources and that can deliver what districts need most.