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High Schools Go Green to Save Some Green

Cash-strapped high schools can find savings in energy efficiency, experts say.

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Schools may be closed for summer vacation, but they aren't getting a break from funding cuts. In fact, lawmakers in many state capitals aren't arguing over whether to trim education funding, but how much to cut.

Illinois, for instance, cut $161 million in state aid for schools in a 2012-2013 budget approved last week. Oregon's Beaverton School District cut 344 jobs, eliminated elementary school art and technology teachers, and either cut off or decreased funding for several other programs this week in order to compensate for reduced state funding.

[Read about funding cuts for language programs.]

For high schools struggling to fill holes in their budgets, investing in energy efficiency may be the least of their concerns. But it should be near the top of their priorities, says Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools, part of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit group.

"This is something you can't afford not to do," Gutter says. "A green school … is actually one of the only opportunities, in a moment when budgets are already stretched so thin, to be able to unearth funds that are available for the taking."

By turning off lights, powering down computers, and optimizing heating and cooling systems, schools can drop their average utility bills by as much as 25 percent, Gutter adds.

Installing motion sensors on light fixtures and swapping out light bulbs for more energy-efficient models, as well as other green enhancements, helped Loveland High School in Ohio save $350,000 in one year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Loveland was one of 26 U.S. high schools recognized as a Green Ribbon School by the Department of Education and the Center for Green Schools. In total, 78 schools—50 percent of which serve high poverty areas—were honored for their commitment to the environment.

Officials at another Green Ribbon School, Gladstone High School in Oregon, created a Green School Club, which helped shave $250 per month off the school's electrical costs by conducting energy audits.

Empowering students to take efficiency into their own hands has proved successful at other schools as well, says Gutter.

"We've seen green energy patrols and we've seen green teams," she says. "These kids become militant about encouraging teachers and students to turn off the lights when they leave classrooms, [and] to power down devices when they check out for the day."

Some schools even negotiate with their boards to retain a portion of the savings generated by their green teams.

[Find out why some districts are cutting school days.]

"A lot of times, those savings go into a black hole," Gutter says. "But students have that unique opportunity to say, 'Can we get a party out of it? Can we use it to buy new laptops for our classroom?'"

Instilling green habits in students, such as recycling, composting, and turning off devices, can have an impact on the entire community. Many students also implement their environmentally friendly behaviors at home, Gutter says.

"The ripple effect of this goes well beyond the school itself and spreads across the entire community."

Have something of interest to share? Send your news to us at highschoolnotes@usnews.com.