I have been a member of Portland High School’s Environmental Club since my freshman year in 2003. Now, halfway through my senior year, it seems we are dealing with the same issues and concerns related to our energy consumption at PHS that we were when I joined. And only in the past week or so have things started to look up a bit.
School officials have known how to save energy — and as much as $36,000 a year — at the school since 2004, when a team of students audited the building’s energy use, finding many classrooms are lit too brightly, many bathroom faucets don’t shut off, some incandescent light bulbs can be replaced with compact fluorescent ones, and poorly sealed windows and doors let precious heat escape all winter.
Since February 2006, school officials have known that Fred Padula, president of the Maine Green Campus consortium, was willing to give the Environmental Club $25,000 to make the needed repairs. But it wasn’t until after the Phoenix started asking questions this month that the superintendent and facilities manager got their act together enough to meet Padula’s simple requirements.
All he asked for a year ago was to have the head custodian trained about energy efficiency and environmental concerns, to create a “green team” of student volunteers to monitor energy consumption in the school, and to post the school’s energy-use statistics online for all to see.
We presented the proposal to the school committee in June, and when classes resumed in the fall, we got to work. By early December, all that remained for us to do was to get the energy-use numbers from facilities manager Doug Sherwood.
As the weeks passed, club members e-mailing him to ask for updates received automated replies saying why he would be out of the office, or messages lauding our efforts without giving us what we needed.
After almost two months of waiting, Environmental Club member Fiona Wilson filed a Freedom of Access request, asking for the information to be made public under the provisions of state law. After five days without a reply, Wilson e-mailed Sherwood once again, receiving a detailed automated response describing his plans for the day.
But even when Sherwood agreed to release the information, we had to find our own way to it. During my interviews with Sherwood and O’Connor, they both alluded to a meeting they had set up with Padula during the school day on February 9, but had never told the club. Wilson called the central office to find the time, left school early, and represented the club at the meeting, where O’Connor pinned the blame for the delay on other staff — and even our own club! — but did finally hand Wilson the energy consumption data.
Padula, who is working with the district to improve efficiency at other Portland schools, says he is happy with how things are going. O’Connor says she is “absolutely thrilled that there’s a group of students to kind of lead the effort for Portland High,” adding that controlling energy consumption is one of the school committee’s overarching goals.
Though the Environmental Club members are glad to finally get the grant, and look forward to putting it to good use by improving the school’s energy efficiency, other students looking to make a difference should be forewarned. As the club’s advisor, environmental science teacher Cynthia Martin, puts it, “there are so many layers of bureaucracy in this system that to make change is an incredibly complicated and difficult task,” even if the bureaucracy is being given free money.