The Tamaqua Area School District has some decisions to make regarding a $5.7 million proposal to convert Tamaqua and West Penn Elementary schools to geothermal heating systems.

Shayne Homan of McClure Company, Harrisburg, presented an update on Phase 2 of the district's Guaranteed Energy Savings Project to the Tamaqua Area Board of Education Tuesday evening.

McClure Company is a subsidiary of PPL Energy Services, which worked with the district on the first phase of the project, including the conversion of Tamaqua Area High School to geothermal heating.

Superintendent Carol Makuta said the proposal for Phase 2 has been tweaked since last month. The district had considered including the renovation of the high school locker rooms as part of the project but is now leaning in another direction.

"We decided to carve out the locker rooms from the project and to put them out to bid," said Makuta. "McClure would still be responsible for the mechanical portion (about $150,000)."

Arthur Oakes Jr., district maintenance supervisor, said the specifications for the locker rooms should be ready for the school board's March 15 meeting. The finance committee authorized business manager Connie Ligenza to advertise for the bids.

Without the locker room renovation costs, Homan said the total price tag for Phase 2 is $5,787,986.

If the district receives a $334,980 grant from the commonwealth's Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), as well as a one percent DCED loan for $420,000, the amount the district would have to finance is $4,634,827. That figure includes savings from Phase 1 of the project.

Homan said a lender is lined up the fund the project at 20 years and 3-4 percent interest.

McClure has provided district solicitor Jeffrey Bowe with an amended final contract for Phase 2 and is seeking to have it executed by the district this month.

"To have it prepared for next school year, this is the timing for it," said Makuta.

Daniel E. Schoener, the board's treasurer, asked how the numbers for the project would be affected if the district waits until next year.

"You will be spending that money on oil and will have an increased cost of construction for the project," said Homan.

While Ligenza agreed that the district would have to deal with the uncertainty surrounding oil prices, the board must determine how it will budget for the annual costs.

Homan mentioned that Phase 2 has two buildings to be converted to geothermal this time instead of one. "Maybe we could phase it in?" suggested Ligenza. "We could do one this year and one next year, but you would be deferring the savings," explained Homan.

Schoener said the board could schedule a special meeting if it is not ready to render a decision on the contract by the March 15 meeting.

SEE program

In a related matter, Robert Carr, president of i-Energy Partners of Pa., Doylestown, gave a presentation on the SEE (Schools for Energy Efficiency) program.

The program works with school districts to provide an educational component to energy savings. "Think of conservation," said Carr. "This is also a behavioral program."

SEE is a systemized plan that provides educational awareness materials and utility tracking system software to train students, teachers and staff to use energy more efficiently. It is a five-year plan, with each year based around a different theme.

Over 600 schools participate in the SEE program, and they have seen an average reduction of 16 percent in annual energy use, said Carr. That adds up to $23 million in avoided utility costs over five years.

In addition, 85 percent of SEE schools win ENERGY STAR awards, according to Carr. Some schools have saved up to 30-40 percent on their energy costs in a year.

"The piece we have to change to move forward is the culture of our students and the way they use energy," said Makuta.

The program requires a minimum participation of two years. The annual cost for five years would be $7,000 per building for its six buildings, plus $30,000 salary for an Energy Efficiency Coordinator (EEC).

State budget impact

With Governor Tom Corbett unveiling his proposed budget, Ligenza explained that school district appropriations have been cut, as many expected would happen.

"It was taken back to 2008-09 levels for funding," said Ligenza. For Tamaqua Area, that would mean a subsidy cut of $633,000, a decrease of nine percent.

In addition, Corbett has cut Ed Rendell's block grants, which could mean about $350,000 less for the district.

"We're looking at a loss of close to a million in revenue" due to the cuts," added Ligenza.