Schools select company for Bluestone solar project; Teachers ask for keeping the shorter school day

Bluestone Elementary, which opened in 2017, has numerous features that stress environmental and energy conservation and stewardship. (Photo by Eric Gorton)

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

Harrisonburg City Public Schools will enter contract negotiations with a Madison Heights-based solar company to construct new solar panels on the roof and campus of Bluestone Elementary, which the school board decided at Tuesday’s meeting.  

The board’s Solar Panel Review Committee received three competitive responses to its request for proposals for the Bluestone solar project, but ultimately chose to recommend Affordable Energy Concepts, because of the company’s strong proposal for the educational design.

Besides the roof solar array, the installation will include a single panel mounted on the ground along with an interactive electric sign, solar-powered water fountain, which can serve as teaching tools. Bluestone, which opened in fall 2017, already incorporates sustainability into its design, which also offers educational opportunities

School board member Deb Fitzgerald, who also serves on the solar review committee, said part of what persuaded the group to choose Affordable Energy Concepts was the “science/statistics/ experimental aspect we all found really interesting and engaging.”

“This isn’t just going to be for Bluestone Elementary kids,” Fitzgerald said. “The kind of data that’s involved that’s going to be able to be collected can be … a place for middle and high school kids to come just right across the street.”

She also said it’s crucial for the construction to go smoothly. 

“It’s really important to choose a company that gets the fact that this has to be the project that works, so that we can then build on this and move it to other schools and build on the whole thing and expand this across the system,” Fitzgerald said.

A proposal for a district-wide solar project fell through in 2019 when the school district and another solar company, Secure Futures, couldn’t agree on the financial terms

Affordable Energy Concepts has installed solar panels at three Bath County public schools, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and has developed a solar training program at Rockbridge County High School.

“Once this happens, it’s going to be more persuasive” for other organizations to follow suit, said board member Andrew Kohen, another member of the solar review committee and who also serves on the city’s Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee. 

“Words on pages and commentary by experts is one thing, but when you see it in action it has a much more powerful impact, so I’m thrilled to go forward with this,” Kohen said.

The installation will be funded by the Harrisonburg Electric Commission as part of its Experimental Solar Panel Education grant program. 

Craig Mackail, the district’s chief operating officer, said the installation could get Bluestone close to generating as much energy as it uses so that “it doesn’t cost anything to heat or cool that building.”

In responding to a question from Board Chairwoman Kristen Loflin, Mackail said the school district will push during the negotiations for adding electric vehicle charging capabilities. Those charging stations remain scarce around town much to the chagrin of some electric vehicle drivers, as The Citizen has reported. 

“I think this is gonna be bigger than HCPS, because this is gonna be the first installation in the city like this on a public building, so I think it’s gonna garner a lot of attention and we’re gonna have a lot of people coming to look at it and see how it performs,” Mackail said.

Teachers urge board to make shortened day permanent

Several teachers from around the district asked the board Tuesday to make permanent the shorter school day, saying that the additional hour of planning time still isn’t enough.

Starting Monday, Harrisonburg city schools ended classes an hour earlier to give teachers already stretched thin more of an opportunity to prep and plan. The school board, at its last meeting, approved that change for 48 days, which would last through November. 

One Keister Elementary teacher said the length of the school day has never been enough for her to prepare to do her job, and that she spends a “tremendous amount of time outside of work, mostly on weekends, creating, modifying, and preparing materials and resources to be successful in the classroom.”

She also said she can’t focus on her mental wellness while also balancing work because she can’t leave school in time to get to medical professionals’ offices before they close.

One kindergarten teacher at Stone Spring Elementary said she can’t spend time with her family with her increased workload. 

“I urge you to make the shortened day a permanent change so that we may have the time to be the best teachers and the best parents and families that we can be,” she said.

Bus driver shortage

Superintendent Michael Richards announced that in response to the Virgina-wide bus driver shortage in schools, the district has worked with the city to create a bonus program aimed at recruitment and retention for drivers. 

Newly hired and current bus drivers will receive $1,000 bonuses and bus assistants will receive bonuses of $500 each. They’re also offering a 50-cent-per-hour increase for those who receive their commercial driver’s license.

“So it’s an incentive for more people who work for the transportation department to be able to drive a bus,” Richards said.

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