New Jersey's public schools have long been test cases for energy conservation and other sustainable strategies; the proliferation of solar panels on school roofs is just the highest-profile example.
In the past two years alone, there have been more than 30 solar projects approved in New Jersey schools, and another 20 proposed.
As such strategies increasingly become economic issues, the state's School Boards Association is launching an unprecedented study of schools' green practices. The goal is to determine where and how they can bring short- and long-term savings and other benefits to existing schools.
The Sustainable Schools Project, costing $300,000 and taking place over three years, aims to cull from schools their success stories and their lessons in not just energy efficiency but also how they teach and set examples of sustainable living in the classroom.
"You hear a lot about new green schools going up, but not very much on what is happening in existing schools," said John Henry of the association's Educational Information and Resource Center (EIRC), which will be heading up the study.
"And not just in energy, but what are the other areas that could bring savings and also improve the education for these children," he said. "We see coming out of this a sustainable how-to, a guidebook of best practices."
The launch of the project comes at a time when the state is re-evaluating its own aggressive clean energy goals, which aim to have 22.5 percent of the state's electricity produced by solar power and other renewable sources by 2020. The big question, however, is whether the state will continue funding clean energy efforts at its current level, expected to cost $319 million this year, an expense borne by gas and electric customers. The bulk of that money, 80 percent in the current funding year, goes to finance projects to reduce energy consumption.
On the economic front, the schools project is growing out of necessity for districts facing ever-growing -- and unpredictable -- annual energy costs.
There is not a statewide tally of energy costs, but one cooperative purchasing program for about 350 districts overseen by the association saw more than $130 million spent on energy last year. For the first time, schools also may not exclude those costs from property tax caps.
A big byproduct of those rising costs was the surge in solar projects in schools, with nearly every other renovation project proposed to voters lately including at least some solar component on the promise that it would pay for itself in a few years.
But that was before the market fell out from under the solar industry in New Jersey, with some fearing that districts may even default on their borrowing for such approved projects. Those lessons will be part of the study as well, Henry said.
"Are those good investments for school districts?" he said. "Will it save them money, and what are the other outcomes? I think districts are still looking at it as an option, but we hear some skepticism and some questions if it's a great investment any more."
The project will extend to what is taught in the classroom, as well, especially in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The initiative will select a number of project schools that will integrate the notion of sustainability into a set of lessons and model behaviors, all compiled into so called "green strategic plans," Henry added.
"That's at the heart of the project," said Charles Ivory, EIRC's executive director. "With the goal of making the green school a learning laboratory, the project is in direct alignment with U.S. and New Jersey Department of Education initiatives to expand STEM education and make it more relevant to students through real-world learning."