As each Athens City School District resident, parent, student and teacher becomes increasingly aware of the enormous economic, environmental and educational opportunities afforded by net-zero energy schools, invariably they ask why this district hasn’t made net-zero design and delivery a matter of course.

Ask a superintendent of schools and you may receive a sweeping presentation of administrative caution framed in circular logic, such as conducted before Athens City Council on Feb. 25 – inaccurate and misleading enough as to necessitate an itemized 12-page rebuttal to keep facts separate from narrative fiction.

Ask a School Board president or vice-president, and a 739-word litany largely mirroring the superintendent’s voice appears in the March, 18 Athens NEWS, focused primarily on what’s not broken rather than what is.

The honest truth isn’t that net-zero energy can’t be achieved within the district’s LEED Silver budget, or that it usurps the School District’s educational charter, but that the district failed by several means to bring it to the public table.

The “how” of that is far less important than the consequences should a solution fail to be created.

Should net-zero energy ever navigate a course change from purely informational to purely intentional, the method to achieve that end becomes readily apparent.

Currently, the district’s design and engineering team has no first-hand experience in the design and delivery of net-zero energy schools.

This is the exact same wall everyone ever attempting to deliver a net-zero energy school has faced.

In the Athens context, there are two methods to scale that wall. One is trial and error at the district’s expense, with no certainty of outcome.

The other is to seek the assistance of engineering firms having specialized in extreme energy performance for decades, responsible for nearly every net-zero energy school in existence, and perhaps most on the drawing boards.

Such a course change is beset with one over-arching impediment. It would require comity – a working arrangement for the benefit of all – between a school board, superintendent of schools, architect of record, and a firm specializing in net-zero energy design.

While the overall benefit is apparent, each party would evaluate its own self-interests.

The district’s interests – whether defined at the ground level of students, staff, teachers, residents and taxpayers, or at the administrative level of school board and superintendent – are best served by a reboot.

Yet at the administrative level, a course change might be perceived as an admission of error or earlier oversights. It would require internal re-evaluations, where humility might be found an asset rather than a liability.

The design architect faces several impediments. First is acknowledgement that optimized net-zero energy design is an art form, not a set of hard and fast rules.

Even the best of artists require considerable practice.

Second is economic, as introducing another firm means dividing a portion of the engineering pie. It’s that or create a degree of cost overlap, as the ink on their contract is already dry.

What may not be considered fully is how such incorporation would bring to the table a wealth of information, experience and proven performance, or that cost overlap might be readily mitigated, a consequence of what a third party brings to the table.

These gains could fast-track their house’s learning curve and propel them into an Ohio market nearly devoid of net-zero energy design experience, benefiting present and future clients, as well as the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, also years behind the net-zero energy learning curve.

Or they could maintain present course, attempt to reinvent the wheel, risk failure to a substantial degree at the expense of the School District, and perhaps gamble in some part with their professional credibility.

Those are the impediments between delivering average schools and world-class schools.

Two items of note, especially when considering the district’s increased tendency to generate spin: 

The first is that an extensive district-wide conversation alone – even if initiated by the district and in concert with the Athens Sustainability Commission – does not ensure a course change. That path requires more than just “dialogue.”

The second, again, is that by every measure what has happened or didn’t up to this point is almost inconsequential compared to what happens or doesn’t over the course of the next few weeks.

Hanging in the balance are some of the greatest educational, economic and environmental opportunities Athens may ever see. 

Editor’s note: Among other things, Todd Swearingen of Guysville is owner of Appal (Apple) Energy, a small business oriented toward energy efficiency, energy conservation and alternative fuels.

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