School board wants to work with HEC to install solar panels on Bluestone Elementary

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Harrisonburg City Public Schools are one step closer to a solar panel installation after the School Board voted unanimously Tuesday evening to pursue a collaboration with the Harrisonburg Electric Commission to put solar panels on the roof of Bluestone Elementary School.

At the electric commission’s last meeting, Brian O’Dell, the HEC’s general manager, told the commission members that he had begun talks with the city school system for a partnership, which could include a grant to develop a solar project. 

Superintendent Michael Richards told the school board during Tuesday’s work session that city schools staff recommended Bluestone for the project because it is “solar ready.”

The decision to pursue a new partnership comes after the school district’s planned solar project with Secure Futures, LLC fell through in July, in part because of the school board’s concerns over being guaranteed financial savings on the deal. 

Craig Mackail, assistant superintendent of operations and school safety, said if the school district partnered with Harrisonburg Electric Commission, the commission would provide grant funding that would allow the schools to purchase the panels outright, unlike the Secure Futures model where the company would have retained ownership over the panels while allowing the schools to save energy costs.

Part of the design, Mackail said, would include a demonstration panel installed on the ground for educational purposes. 

Mackail also said that according to the district’s legal counsel, the schools would need to use “an alternative contract structure to procure these” panels, rather than a typical Request for Proposal process. Government entities, including school districts, use the “RFP” process to contract design services and then solicit independent bids to construct that design. 

One alternative option, Mackail said, is the “design/build” model that is being used to plan the new high school, in which construction can begin simultaneously while designs are being finalized.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” school board member Obie Hill said. “We’ve always talked about Bluestone going net-zero.”

That means that the school would generate as much energy on-site as it consumes. Board chair Deb Fitzgerald told The Citizen after the meeting that making Bluestone “pretty much net-zero” is the board’s hope for the project.

“This is a very good first step,” Fitzgerald said. “I like working with HEC as a partner in this.”

New “Sarver Stadium”?

The board also considered naming the existing Harrisonburg High School football stadium after retired social studies teacher and football coach Tim Sarver, who worked for the school district from 1985 to 2011. 

They ultimately voted to table the matter until the next meeting, after Richards raised concerns that the school district’s policy for naming school facilities lacks “adequate public input” as well as “parameters” for the board to make these decisions.

Richards said multiple times during the meeting that his concerns were procedural, and had nothing to do with Sarver as a nominee. 

He told The Citizen after the meeting that he hopes to have a revised policy ready for the school board to review at the next meeting Nov. 5.

Current Harrisonburg High School social studies teacher and assistant football coach Joe Carico, who formerly served as the school’s athletics director, told the school board he had received 82 letters of recommendation to put Sarver’s name on the stadium.

Three attendees spoke in favor of Sarver’s commemoration, including Dawn and Chris Womack, whose son Landon Turner went on to play for the North Carolina Tar Heels and is currently a free agent in the NFL.

Dawn Womack said Sarver’s legacy extends beyond his own actions, to “the players’ impact from his influence that reaches throughout the world.” 

Tony Tallent, now the Athletic Director at Tuscarora High School in Leesburg, Va., also played football under Sarver’s guidance and then coached alongside him for 14 years.

“What he taught me was about family,” Tallent said. “When you name a field, you’re setting a standard.”

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