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Schools: Solar Dispute Yields Sparks

Despite millions of dollars in projected, some school board members opposed the project; solar panels already up and running on three campuses.

A dispute over solar energy that generated sparks on the school board has carried over into the November election and the race for three seats.

Despite controversy, John Swett, John Muir, and Morello Park elementary schools are now on the grid; and within a few weeks, Alhambra High, Martinez Junior High and district offices will have functioning solar arrays, according to the district’s new online Measure K newsletter.

While conversion to solar was one of the priority projects for Measure K funds, two school board members, Denise Elsken and John Fuller, balked at making the investment, spurring outraged former trustee Ron Skrehot to run for office again.

Measure K is a $45 million school bond that provides the local match for $5 million in State matching funds to make energy efficiency improvements to reduce annual  operating costs, among other upgrades.

Opponents worried that the solar panels would consume too much playground space, particularly at Morello Park Elementary.

Nonsense, charged Skrehot.

“There weren’t very many parents who were upset,” he said. “And quite frankly, I went to all the school board meetings around Measure K.”

The only objections came from Elksen and Fuller – both of whom opposed solar, Skrehot said — a charge Elsken denies.

“I had voiced my disagreement with placing solar panels on playgrounds at the board workshop we had on the issue, and I felt when it came to us for voting, we did not have exact placement, the contracts were not complete, and there was no community input regarding placing solar on the playgrounds,” Elsken said in an email. “My main concern is that the children are safe and that they have a fun place to release their energy or just to sit and talk to friends.”

Fuller never stated his objections, and declined to discuss the matter when contacted by Martinez Patch. However, minutes show he had pressed for a detailed accounting of the costs.

“I said, if you’re going to scrutinize, you have to scrutinize all the projects, not just one,” Skrehot recalled.

The actual costs of the project, first estimated at $8.5 million, will come closer to $7 million, minutes show.

“Now is the time to do it,” Skrehot said. “With the downturn in the economy the Chinese flooded the market with solar panels and prices dropped like a rock.”

The board negotiated with Solar City for a 10-year guarantee and 10 years of maintenance, trustee Vicki Gordon said in a phone interview.

“We could pay off solar in seven years,” she said. “Plus, we capped it so we’ll never raise taxes. We’ve been very careful with the money.”

Solar energy will enable the district to realize savings in the millions of dollars – more than $21 million over the next 25 years, chief business officer Andi Stubbs said. That includes General Fund savings from reduced energy bills and five years of rebates from PG&E.

Regardless the number of parents who may have attended school board meetings, the district is redesigning the Morello Park Elementary installation.

Less than 1 percent of playground space will be lost, Stubbs said.

“Morello Park was the only elementary school that didn't have a climbing wall, so to mitigate the impact to kids we are adding one,” with the PTA picking up some of the cost, she said.

The next Citizen's Oversight Committee Meeting will take place at 7 pm on Thursday, Oct. 25 in the district office boardroom.

morning glory October 16, 2012 at 11:14 PM
I agree with Mr. Fuller!! I urge people to take a look at where the solar panels are placed at Morello. The first thing my husband said was "I hope a ball or a kid doesn't hit one of those panels". It is awful where they placed those things. I really wished I worked for solar city they are making a killing in this town! There's 30+kids to one teacher in our classrooms but we have solar panels. Yipee! People make sure you know what you are voting for! Hey Mr.Skrehot can you get some teachers from China too? Maybe you could save some more money.
Sean Dexter November 02, 2012 at 09:04 PM
The solar panels pencil out and will save the District money over the long haul. This is exactly what the school board is supposed to be doing for the community - finding ways to squeeze the maximum educational bang out of every nickel. I am glad we have the solar panels and will not be sending our taxpayer money to PG&E every month.

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