Adios to Cenergistic

February 13, 2015
 
by Barbara O’Brien

As it turns out, there will be no signed contract between Cenergistic, Inc. and the Windham School District.  It was not the school board that made that decision, however.

The echoes of the ruckus caused by the school board’s seemingly hasty decision to approve that contract are likely to hover over school administrators and in the minds of local residents for some time.  There are some very aggravated people residing in this southern New Hampshire community, many of whom are in the midst of making decisions about the upcoming election.

When three of Windham’s five school board members voted to agree with a proposed contract with Cenergistic, a company out of Dallas, Texas; touted to have saved school districts millions of dollars in energy costs, it started a firestorm that hasn’t been heard since some of the same school board members decided to vacate the portable classrooms at Golden Brook School and consign them to the wrecking ball.

Cenergistic first came into view in Windham during a school board meeting on Jan. 6, when representatives of the company pitched their proposal, promising to save the local school district about $1.8 million in energy costs over a 10-year period.  There would be no cost to taxpayers, Cenergistic vowed.  Their profits would come out of the amount of money saved on energy.  Things really heated up at that meeting, however, when school board Chairman Jerome Rekart refused to allow members of the Citizens Facilities Committee to provide input on the proposal.  Instead of allowing the input, Rekart called a recess and, instructed a member of the school administration to call the police.  The two police officers who showed up at the meeting surveyed the situation, asked a few questions, then left.

Still, Rekart, stood by his no public input policy and to the shock of many in the room, a motion to approve the contract with Cenergistic was approved by a vote of 3 to 1 to 1.  Rekart, Michael Joanis and Dennis Senibaldi voted to approve the contract.  Rob Breton took no position on the issue and abstained.  Only Ken Eyring stood up for the Citizens Facilities Committee, whose members were denied permission to offer advice on the topic at hand.

For the next 14 days, many residents made phone calls, typed emails and posted comments on local blogs and in newspapers.  Most of that correspondence involved residents pleading with officials to reconsider the contract; to put it on the back burner; to learn more before making a decision.  At the Jan. 20 school board meeting, some of these people showed up in person, expressing similar arguments and imploring school administrators to halt the rush.  Many of them cited newspaper articles and other documentation detailing problems that other school districts have reportedly had with Cenergistic, a firm once known as Energy Education, Inc.  Although Rekart did allow the public to speak at this meeting, as topics were raised, there was no change in the school board’s decision to approve the contract.  School administrators insisted that everything was going ahead and the contract would soon be signed.

Things were not fine, however, and it became increasingly obvious how flawed they were, when, at the next meeting, Windham Board of Selectmen’s Chairman Ross McLeod took to the podium and admonished school administrators for their haste and lack of due diligence.  Prior to launching into his lecture, however, McLeod noted that he was adhering to Rekart’s public input policy of three minutes per person and had already timed himself to make sure it met the correct parameters.

“I’m upset that a majority of this board voted to authorize staff to enter into a five-year contract with Cenergistic with no public input, without first reviewing the contract, without any due diligence and without understanding the consequences of a rushed decision,” McLeod said.  “I’m here to ask any of the three who supported that decision – Mike Joanis, Chairman Rekart or Dennis Senibaldi, to move to reconsider,” McLeod said; adding the following reasons for his request: “Your motion mentioned that the contract was “at no net cost to the town,” McLeod said. “Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  You will be paying $577,136 over five years.  This is a real cost to the town.  You will be giving away our first $577,136 in energy ‘savings’ in order to achieve leftover savings, such as they may exist.”

McLeod gave further explanation: “We can do this ourselves, without Cenergistic, as part of a more comprehensive automated equipment, plus behavioral management, energy reduction plan, by engaging the town’s local energy committee.  We have smart, talented people right here in Windham who can help.

“We can achieve at least a three-percent savings on our own, in a more permanent manner, and put the $577,136 to better use, for teachers’ salaries, instead of going into the pockets of a Texas corporation for transient behavioral modifications; ones we can do ourselves.”

McLeod’s final point was that it was to Cenergistic’s advantage to have the Windham School District rush into a contract, prior to any local energy reductions being made, as the savings are calculated on usage during the first year of the contract and are cumulative for the five-year duration of that contract.  “Conversely,” McLeod said, “it is to our advantage to have the base year as low as possible, so that we can claim credit for the savings.”  “To do that, we need time,” he added.  “If Cenergistic is such a good idea and is legitimate, then they will still be around a year from now for negotiation.

“Don’t sign the contract.”  McLeod said.  “Move to reconsider and give yourselves time for the Windham School District to lower its consumption on its own and, therefore, be in a better negotiating position.”

Despite McLeod’s urging, none of the three school board members who voted in favor of the contract with Cenergistic made a motion to reconsider the decision.  In fact, none of them said anything about McLeod’s comments at all.  As January wound down, SAU 95 Business Administrator Adam Steel said he was still working on a few aspects of the agreement school board members had given permission to move forward with, but he didn’t see any significant roadblocks.  Superintendent Winfried Feneberg said he expected the process to continue moving forward. Behind the scenes, however, it appears that Steel, at least, had been paying close attention to what McLeod and others were saying.  In response, he submitted several proposed changes, dealing mainly with periods of time, to the existing contract.  Cenergistic, apparently, did not care for Steel’s attempt to make any changes.

“Cenergistic contacted us yesterday (Feb. 5) to indicate they were no longer interested in working with our school district at this time,” Steel said.  “They said that if we were interested in moving forward in future years, that they would keep that possibility available to us. “  “Cenergistic and the Windham School District have agreed to suspend negotiations at this time and to go our separate ways.”

After hearing of the news, McLeod said, “I’d like to think that Adam, at least, was listening to the public uproar and actually read the contract and tried to make improvements.”  “Good for, Adam!” he said.

As part of the deal with Cenergistic, the Salem School District was to work in partnership with the Windham School District.  As Windham is no longer moving forward with the bundled proposal, it is believed that Salem will no longer be participating in the energy-saving program either.

Former Windham School Board member Barbara Coish was not happy with the way the majority of the current school board handled this situation.  “This does not make our school board look good,” she said.  “They should have made a motion to reconsider that contract immediately!”  Adding to the fire, also on Feb. 5, a letter from the superintendent of the Rochester, New Hampshire School District was sent to Cenergistic, stating that it was withdrawing from its contract due to Cenergistic failing to find another nearby school district with which Rochester could partner.  Originally, when the Rochester contract was signed, last October, the Salem School District was to be Rochester’s “partner.”  A substitute for Salem was, apparently, not found in the intervening four months.

Windham and Rochester aren’t the only school districts that recently experienced concerns about a contract with Cenergistic.  On the same date that Windham was notified of Cenergistic’s lack of willingness to negotiate (Feb. 5), the Wilson County (Tennessee) Board of Education deferred a vote on whether to enter into an energy savings contract with Cenergistic; a mere two days after the board’s chairman was adamant about its consideration and attempted to hurry a decision through.  A spokesman for the board of education said there were a lot of questions concerning language in the contract and they wanted more time to do some delving into those issues.