State's 'Green' Mandate for Schools Proving Costly

Spokane's Spokesman-Review published this column May 29, 2011.

In 2005, the Washington state Legislature imposed a “green” building mandate on the construction of schools. The legislation requires that state buildings meet “high performance” standards. When the law was passed, advocates said the mandate would add little to the cost of building a school but would yield significant energy savings, promising cuts in energy use of 30 percent.

School districts across the state were already taking enormous steps to improve the efficiency of their buildings without a state mandate, but officials in Olympia thought they knew better.

It turns out, state officials were wrong.

This month, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, or JLARC, released its report on the state’s green building mandate, saying that the “impact of energy use is mixed.” The word “mixed” is a generous way to put it.

The report looked at 14 schools throughout the state, and concluded it cost an extra $10 million to comply with the “green” building mandate – adding roughly 3 percent to the cost of school construction.

Of the nine green schools examined, only one was the most energy efficient in its district. Five of the nine schools actually used more energy than the average school of any age in the same district. Most new green schools are actually less efficient than existing, decades-old school buildings.

One of the failed green schools is Spokane’s Lincoln Heights Elementary. Study results show Lincoln Heights is using 25 percent more energy than originally anticipated. In 2007-’08, Lincoln Heights’ energy costs amounted to 99 cents per square foot. Browne Elementary in Spokane, a non-green school, cost only 76 cents per square foot.

The case of Browne demonstrates why the state’s green mandate doesn’t work. Officials at Spokane Public Schools were already incorporating energy-efficient building elements that saved money while avoiding those that were more costly and yielded fewer results.

Once Spokane was required to comply with the state’s green mandate, however, district officials were forced to spend taxpayer dollars simply to meet the rules, even if doing so didn’t save energy. The state’s JLARC study shows how expensive this mandatory, top-down approach can be.

Spokane Public Schools spent an extra $455,826 to secure a green label for Lincoln Heights Elementary. Only 18 percent of the extra cost to make Lincoln Heights a green school, however, was spent on energy efficiency elements. The other 82 percent was spent on mandates like electric car outlets and large bike racks, which did not yield energy savings. Those additions, while costly, were included not because of any real need, but solely to help meet the state’s requirements.

Spokane taxpayers were forced to waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars simply to meet the state requirement, while doing nothing to help educate schoolchildren.

Not surprisingly, the report shows green building requirements don’t pay for themselves. The JLARC study notes the payback time for green schools ranges from 27 to 30 years. The typical lifespan of a building before it is remodeled or replaced, however, is only 20 years.

Put simply, the state audit confirms that local school districts consistently improve energy efficiency in ways that are more effective than mandates imposed by Olympia.

Green building advocates also promised the mandate would improve the learning environment in the schools, as if local school officials are not capable of or interested in helping children without the imposed regulations.

While acknowledging these failures, some environmental activists and policymakers continue to push the green mandate, saying it somehow helps the environment. But waste of money is waste of resources, and if we spend scarce taxpayer dollars on efforts that don’t yield energy savings, we take money away from school projects that truly do help children and promote environmental sustainability.

The state audit shows what many people have known for some time – that green building mandates are more about cultivating a green image for politicians than helping the environment or schoolchildren. If, however, we truly care about energy efficiency and making our schools great places to learn, we need to repeal the mandate that has proved so costly and ineffective.