District staff and stakeholders, led by Superintendent Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor, prioritized a safer, healthier, and energy-efficient environment for students amidst the pandemic.
By: Julie Chesna
Cartwright Elementary School District (SD) No. 83 is located in Maricopa County, Phoenix, Arizona. The district serves the Maryvale community, providing a first-class education for 21 schools and roughly 16,000 students.
In March of 2019, Cartwright SD appointed its first female and Latina superintendent, Dr. LeeAnn Aguilar-Lawlor. Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor is an experienced educator, having served in three districts as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services at Cartwright. She brings 31 years of educational experience to her new role. Before her education career, she served in the United States Air Force Reserves and was activated during Operation Desert Storm to serve overseas as a medical specialist.
Since her appointment, the warmth, trust, and transparency that characterize her work style have spread throughout the district. From day one, Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor voiced and embraced Cartwright’s motto: One Team, Una Familia (One Family). When the pandemic hit, the school district reacted by putting the necessary tools in place to maintain the same excellence of teaching in a remote environment. They also recognized their students’ other needs and doubled down on efforts to create a healthy and sustainable environment in which they could flourish.
During a national pandemic, Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor and her leadership team developed and, with Governing Board approval, executed a $40 Million Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC).
“If you listen and value what your community and stakeholders are saying, you can make the environment around them better to maximize learning potential.”
– Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor
The School Buildings’ Health
Cartwright Elementary School District #83 dates back to 1884, making it one of the oldest school districts in Maricopa County. Between 1958 and 1980, the district grew rapidly, building and populating 12 schools. The district experienced a similar period of growth from 1992 through 2008, adding six more schools. Including the two original facilities, a majority of their buildings are more than 40 years old, with a few exceeding the age of 60.
Over the last several years, the School District has experienced a decrease in infrastructure funding. For a long time, an assigned district administrator oversaw energy conservation and energy savings in traditional modes by monitoring behaviors such as turning off lights and electronic appliances; moreover, administrators simply assumed that if there was a limited budget available for normal upkeep, building upgrades or renovations weren’t a possibility.
The Drive for Change
Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor created ‘Listening Tours’ in an effort to educate herself on the needs of the schools and build trust within the district. For the first several months of her becoming the superintendent, she toured the district and held open meetings for all staff, providing a platform for free communication to share concerns, feedback, and opportunities for improvement. She used the same format to meet with parent groups. Right away, Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor realized teachers, parents, and staff were tired of sitting idle while the buildings deteriorated around their student scholars.
Energy Services Media sat down with Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor and Dr. Cecilia Maes, Assistant Superintendent of District Operations, to learn about how they were able to deploy a $40 million ESPC during the pandemic and what type of challenges they faced.
“Our experience has shown that ESPCs are a proven option for school districts of any size and with any budget.”
– Dr. Maes
ESM: How did you conduct your listening tours, and what were you hearing from the stakeholders?
Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor: I asked the attendees to write down things that they didn’t want to get rid of. Then, I asked them to write down what they didn’t like or would like to see changed and if they could wave a magic wand to choose anything, without constraints. I walked out of the room and let them work individually and together to come up with ideas, which they could submit anonymously. I read each response: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I learned a lot, and immediately after I did this with the first couple of schools, word started to spread around the district.
We started to build trust. The parents, staff, and teachers began to work together and created lists of improvements they’d like to see. For example, one of the first requests was a water filtration system on all the campuses. That went to the top of the priority list. Then, we started to hear suggestions for solar panels. Several other districts and businesses in the area use solar panels to provide shade and power simultaneously. That idea provided the first steppingstone into energy-efficiency projects. The staff asked me if I could go into their classrooms to see some of the things they wanted for our students, showing us their facilities’ ins and outs and directing our focus where it needed to be.
If you listen and value what your community and your stakeholders are saying, you can make the environment around them better to maximize learning potential. This led me to restructure our staffing to focus attention on building operations. Dr. Maes was appointed as the Assistant Superintendent of District Operations in 2019. She is a strong leader, incredibly efficient, and very passionate about her work. She is managing our active ESPC, in addition to several other critical responsibilities.
Dr. Maes: As the wish list of items that needed upgrades started to grow, it prompted us to start thinking about how we were going to be able to maximize our capital funds to accomplish everything we needed. Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor is one of those leaders that pushes us to listen to what the community wants, then figures out how to make it happen.
Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor: The effort to find the solution that prioritized both the environment and the district was a collective effort driven by all of our stakeholders.
ESM: Were you familiar with Energy Savings Performance Contracting (ESPC) before you started pursuing these improvements?
Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor: I don’t believe either Dr. Maes or myself really knew what that was. We knew what we wanted to do, and we also knew we had limited funding. Our staff and parents introduced us to many great resources. One of these was an outside group called Chispa, an Arizona-based organization committed to advancing climate justice.
Dr. Maes and I also asked ourselves how we could maximize education opportunities and learning spaces. We belong to the Arizona Latino Administrators Association (AZALAS), and we were invited to meet with the state to discuss performance contracting. Leadership from AZALAS introduced us to energy savings performance contracting. From there, we met with our district attorney because these projects can get very complicated. We also wanted to make sure the opportunities we saw weren’t too good to be true.
Dr. Maes: During that time, I took a course with AASBO, the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, to learn more about performance contracting. The facilitator shared how many districts are utilizing them because of limited academic funding. During these discussions, I learned about Midstate Energy, the company that ended up completing the ESPC. The facilitator shared insights into how energy costs are rising. When you have old facilities, as we do, that increase will have a more significant cost implication due to the broader scale of inefficiencies. She told us how districts have to get creative and how performance contracts have worked well for so many.
After completing that course, I spoke to other districts who had recently taken advantage of performance contracts, and all spoke very highly about its ability to give them options to meet their needs. I called our attorney, our chief financial officer, Victoria Farrar, and Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor. The course facilitator had informed us that new laws and statutes had been enacted in recent years that affected how ESPCs impacted school districts. Our attorney reviewed the regulations and told us that he believed an ESPC was a win-win; we would be able to conserve energy with available funds without burdening the taxpayers.
Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor: That’s the best part about a performance contract: it doesn’t increase taxes; it’s all about savings and using those energy savings to make necessary improvements to the facilities.
ESM: Were there other important parties you pulled in during the discovery phase of the project to ensure they’d support the initiative?
Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor: One of the things we did was engage in strategic planning with the governing board and all of our school principals, along with leaders from my team. We updated the district’s top three goals to reflect the priorities we’d learned from parents, teachers, and staff. One of them was to expand student achievement. The second was to ensure excellent customer service. We decided to change our third goal, to focus on and promote social emotional learning.
Once we updated our top three goals, we discussed all of the things we needed to do to accomplish them. We met with our governing board periodically over the course of a semester, and we came up with two lists: the top 10 operational and top 10 educational priorities for our school district. We found that including the governing board throughout the whole process was crucial to its success.
ESM: Once you determined an ESPC was the right option for the school district, what were the next steps?
Dr. Maes: In the spring of 2020, I put together all of the information about what the community wanted and needed. We contacted Midstate, who completed an Investment Grade Audit during the late spring and provided a proposal shortly after. During that time, we met with our Chief Financial Officer, Victoria Farrar, several times a week to discuss the project and ensure we weren’t missing anything. Once everyone felt comfortable with the structure and the proposal, we started to prepare a presentation for our governing board. As the development phase of the project proceeded, I would update the board through weekly bulletins so that it would not come as a surprise when we presented the project. In September, Midstate presented the overall project to the board, and it was approved.
We were able to start working on the project the day after the board meeting. Midstate prioritized which buildings to work on based on where we would experience the greatest energy savings. We began with lighting projects because those generated immediate savings. Every night lighting was replaced, we’d get a report the next morning of which classrooms and what areas received new lighting, and which ones were in progress.
ESM: When you brought the project to the school board during a time of budgetary uncertainty, what kind of feedback did you receive? Did you face any initial push back?
Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor: It was a positive reaction. Honestly, it was great news for a change. The reaction was essentially: “Wow, we can do this! We can do this for our community!” They were very excited, and that enthusiasm was contagious. They couldn’t believe that we had found a way to do some of the things we had proposed.
Dr. Maes: Our board is also very concerned with the sustainability and learning environment of our buildings. Board member, Mr. Pedro Lopez mentioned that he thinks about his kids, grandkids, and future generations that will come through the district. It was evident that the board knew how important it was to think about how best to conserve water and energy. They are all extremely bright and strong advocates for positive reform.
ESM: How is construction going? Do you have an idea when your students will be coming back?
Dr. Maes: We are hopeful our students can come back in January 2021. In the meantime, we can work around the clock on all of these projects because many of the areas that Midstate needs to access are unoccupied right now. That allows us to do more in a shorter period. At the same time, the contractors we work with are used to working at night, so we’ll continue when the students are back on campus.
ESM: Was there additional scope added to the project to combat COVID-19?
Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor: Throughout and prior to the pandemic, I have received calls and emails from principals, teachers, and parents voicing concerns about the schools HVAC systems and the air quality. In addition to the project’s nearly 500 new AC units, which are desperately needed, all of these will be utilizing bipolar ionization to filter the air.
This will not only protect our students and faculty from COVID-19, but it is also an investment to help us combat the flu and other types of viruses. The upgrades will improve our air quality and provide a cool environment for our staff and students. Because it is so hot most of the year in this area, this will directly contribute to an improved learning environment.
ESM: What advice would you give to other school districts who want to achieve energy-efficiency upgrades and are interested in pursuing an ESPC?
Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor: Well, I would say that they should do their homework. I’m happy to be a resource for other school districts; they can call us and get our take on it. Listen to the staff and community, find out what matters to them, and keep the school board involved in setting district goals and priorities. In the end, it’s absolutely worth it. Research, data, and communication are key, so take the time to execute and manage them well.
Dr. Maes: This experience and Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor ‘s leadership reminds me of something my grandpa used to say: “Where’s there a will, there’s a way.” Our faculty, parents, and students wanted these improvements, and we found a way. Our experience has shown that ESPCs are a proven option for school districts of any size and with any budget.
With the valiant help of several internal and external resources and with the direction of Chief Financial Officer, Victoria Farrar, the school district was able to research, develop, and award an Energy Savings Performance Contract in a very short period during a global pandemic. The project will provide a safe and healthy district that will benefit students for generations to come. Driven by the voices of the district’s stakeholders, the push for change came from the bottom up and was realized through Dr. Aguilar-Lawlor ’s strong leadership.
Total Contract Amount: $40 Million
Total Contract Term: 22 Years
Total Buildings: 28
Annual Savings: $1,877,392
Life of Contract Energy Savings: 400,000,000 kWhs
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) sequestered equating to 379,248 acres of forests*
Decreased CO2 emissions equivalent to 33,510 homes*
Reduction of CO2 emissions equivalent to 62,739 passenger vehicles*
*Statistics were calculated estimates from www.epa.gov based on the lifespan of the contract kWh savings.
ENERGY CONSERVATION MEASURES (ECMS)
- Lighting Efficiencies
- HVAC Efficiency Upgrades
- Building, Maintenance Automation Systems and Energy Management System (Veregy to Orchestrate)
- PV Solar
- Needlepoint BiPolar Ionization
PROJECT EXECUTION DURING A PANDEMIC
Randy Falconer, Business Development Executive with Midstate Energy, a Veregy Company, shares Midstate’s experience developing and initiating an Energy Savings Performance Contract during a national pandemic.
Everything but the Investment Grade Audit was completed virtually, Falconer states;
“The whole piece of the development was done virtually, including the final board meeting. The piece that we didn’t do virtually, of course, were the audits. We had to have teams come into the schools. Luckily, in our state, construction was still a go. Since their buildings were empty, it enabled us to speed up the process, we were able to get the results quicker, and in-turn provide information to the district sooner than expected.”
Quicker Sales Cycle
When asked how the pandemic has impacted the timeframe of projects, Falconer explained how the sales cycle has been reduced. In the case of the Cartwright School District ESPC project, it was due to an increased focus on the need for healthier buildings
“Meeting a potential client and getting to a board meeting usually takes 12 months plus. We took a process that was 12- to 18-months, depending, and turned it into a 6-month process,” Falconer states. “That was made possible by the district having such great leadership that was on task and tuned in their community.”
Empty Buildings = Expedited Construction Phase
Falconer explains how the construction phase has been greatly reduced because buildings are empty;
“On the other districts that we are working on, we’ve picked up probably 20% to 30% in our construction period because the buildings are empty. I suspect it’ll be the same thing with the Cartwright project. We are currently looking at an 18-month construction schedule, depending on when their kids go back to school. There is a great likelihood that we could be two or three months ahead of schedule.”
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