Following Heated Exchange WSB Agrees to Five-year Contract with Energy Firm

January 16, 2015
 
by Barbara O’Brien

Tempers flared in the midst of the Jan. 6 school board meeting when Chairman Jerome Rekart refused to allow any of the facilities planning committee members to provide input on a proposed energy savings program.  Facilities planning committee members were livid at Rekart’s denial; reminding him of the countless volunteer hours they had spent researching and assessing ways in which to save taxpayers money.

Although there were raised voices on both sides of the debate, and those who insisted they be allowed to speak did refuse to sit back down and be quiet, there were no verbal or physical threats made by anyone.  As a result of the confrontation, however, Rekart called a five-minute recess, and school board members left the front table.  During that recess, a call was made to Windham Police, resulting in the arrival of two uniformed officers, who spoke briefly with those on both sides of the issue and then stood quietly observing the situation before leaving.

Although a public input session had been allowed at the very beginning of the meeting, facilities planning committee member Tom Murray explained that he and the other members in attendance couldn’t make fully informed comments until after they had heard the energy savings proposal.  “Just listen to us for five minutes,” Murray asked Rekart.  “I can show you everything you need to know.”  Murray’s pleas went unanswered, however.

Chairman Rekart changed the public input policy last year, reportedly, to save time, as meetings were often extending beyond the midnight hour.  Prior to Rekart’s change in policy, the public was allowed to make comments after each topic on that meeting’s agenda, as well as to provide other input on school-related issues at the onset of each meeting.  Since the change, some residents have complained about the lack of opportunity for people to express their opinions or make suggestions.  The public input sessions are limited to approximately three minutes per person.

School board member Ken Eyring said he feels that “it’s a true injustice not to consider what members of the facilities committee have to say.”  “I feel like we’re rushing into this,” he added.

“Shouting back and forth at a meeting is not going to help,” school board member Rob Breton said, also commenting that he felt it might be a good idea to postpone taking a vote on the proposed energy savings program until a later meeting.

Eyring, who has also attended numerous meetings of the school facilities committee, said he had spoken with a representative of Public Service of New Hampshire and been told the company has consultants who will come in for free to evaluate energy usage and make recommendations on how to save money.  Eyring also said he has some concerns about conducting an energy survey now, before any renovations or additions are made to the existing facilities.  “I feel it’s premature,” Eyring said of the energy savings program being proposed by school administrators.  Those who were opposed to going with the proposed energy savings program became further incensed when school board members decided to vote on the issue, without hearing what others had to say, first.

The proposal that was put forth by school administrators came from Cenergistic, a firm out of Dallas, Texas.  According to one of the representatives of Cenergistic, which bills itself as an energy conservation company, its clients save money “through a change of culture.”  The firm’s representative said patterns of usage are examined and then changes in behavior and the optimization of equipment are recommended.

Cenergistic claims that the use of their expertise and services costs their clients nothing.  The money made by the company comes out of the money saved by their clients, the representative said.  “If there are no savings, we get paid nothing,” he emphasized.  “There would be no cost to the Windham School District.”

According to Cenergistic’s website, “For over three decades we have revolutionized how our clients view, consume and use energy nationwide.  Our behavioral-focused energy conservation approach is unique in the industry – changing behaviors to realize significant savings.  It comes with no risk, no debt, and no equipment to buy.  Our average client has saved 26%, and collectively, we’ve helped our clients redirect $3.5 billion dollars to invest in the lives of the people our clients serve, not utility companies.”

In addition to substantial energy savings, Cenergistic states that it will deliver these CORE benefits:

Capital: Save through elimination or deferral of capital purchases.

Operations and Maintenance: Save through reduced labor costs and consumables replacement.

Recognition: Acknowledgement of good stewardship through ENERGY STAR awards and positive publicity.

Environmental: Conserve natural resources while creating a better environment for your constituents.

Based on the proposal put before the Windham School Board, the use of Cenergistic’s services would amount to a savings in energy costs of approximately $1,867,000 during the five-year life of the proposed contract.  Out of those projected savings, Cenergistic would net $580,000 as its fee.  The contract also includes a full-time energy specialist, selected by school district administrators, but paid for by Cenergistic.  The proposal also includes Windham partnering with the Salem School District.  The cost of the energy specialist would be pro-rated between the two school districts, the representative for Cenergistic stated.

According to Cenergistic’s representative, the ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of energy used by the school district, thereby conserving energy and reducing costs.  The process includes a “front-loaded effort,” intended to save money quickly, he said.  The “quick start” would extend over the first four months of the contract.

Despite the urging of Eyring and members of the facilities planning committee to give the decision further time for discussion, school board members decided to move forward with a motion to enter into a five-year contract, in conjunction with the Salem School District, at a no net cost to the school districts.  The motion passed by a vote of 3 to 1 to 0.  Voting in favor were Chairman Jerome Rekart, Vice-Chairman Dennis Senibaldi and school board member Michael Joanis.  School board member Ken Eyring was the only negative vote, while board member Rob Breton abstained from voting.

Senibaldi said he sees the contract as a win-win situation and likes the guarantee idea.  “It will save us money we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Senibaldi said.  Joanis said energy conservation has really become a science and requires a specific expertise.  Eyring said that the Derry School District recently declined to enter into a contract with Cenergistic, stating that it might behoove Windham to find out why.

Following the meeting, Tom Murray explained what he had wanted to tell the school board prior to their taking a vote on the contract.  Murray said he had spoken with Robert Krey, who is PSNH’s account executive for Windham.  Krey had told Murray that he could arrange an energy audit for the Windham School District at no cost; one by which the utility company would not be getting any portion of the savings generated through its recommendations.  “We simply wanted to provide the public with all the facts,” Murray said.  “We weren’t trying to influence anyone.”

Murray, the chief executive officer of a multi-million dollar business, is also a member of the United States Green Building Council, as well as the American Society of Civil Engineers.  As a lead certified contractor, Murray has created energy initiatives for several Fortune 500 companies.  He is also the owner of two “Net Zero” buildings, each of which produces enough electricity on its own, that it doesn’t need to acquire energy from a utility company.  Murray said these buildings have been recognized nationally by the federal government for their negative carbon footprint.

Murray said he isn’t sure why certain school board members don’t want to take, or even listen to, the advice given to them by members of the facilities planning committee, even if those members have extensive experience in the field being discussed.  “It takes a lot to make me angry,” Murray said, “but it really gets me going when information is kept from the public.”  “If the public is given all the information, they’ll make the right decision,” he said.  As for Rekart’s decision not to allow him to speak during the discussion on energy conservation, Murray said, “Dr. Rekart has a control issue.  He doesn’t want to let the public speak.”  As for the police being called to the meeting, Murray said he felt it was totally unnecessary and an over-reaction on the part of the school administration.

Following the school board meeting, Rekart said one of the reasons that he voted in favor of the contract with Cenergistic is that it has the advantage of having “someone on site to teach, monitor and adjust behaviors, so that real savings can be realized.”  As for contacting the police, Rekart said that “the board’s ability to conduct its remaining business was threatened.”

When asked about his policy regarding public input, Rekart replied that he had made the decision to limit public input to the beginning of meetings, based on “public input” that he’d received.  “I believe it is more considerate of the public to have a set time during the first hour of the meeting for comments on items, rather than making taxpayers wait to see if or when their topic is covered.”  As for the most recent meeting, Rekart said, “Any taxpayer could have spoken about the energy proposal during the public comment portion, but nobody did.”  Rekart said he has no plan to change the public comment policy, but, “if the will of the board is to modify the policy, then there is a process for that.”

What is now called Cenergistic has been in business for nearly 30 years, but until two years ago it was known as Energy Education, Inc.  The company’s website states that the name was changed due to its expansion to working with facilities other than those involved in education.  During that time, they amassed 1,367 clients.

The day after the school board meeting, Eyring said he took an unpaid day off from his job to do some follow-up investigation regarding Cenergistic.  During his research, Eyring uncovered an advisory from the Office of the Inspector General in Massachusetts, cautioning school districts to “perform due diligence before conducting the procurement” of services such as those provided by Energy Education, Inc. (Cenergistic).  “Public utilities, state agencies and others offer free energy consulting services,” the advisory reads.  “Remember, contracts paid for through energy savings are not free or no cost.”  The inspector general’s advisory was based on a review of nearly 20 contracts that school districts have had with Energy Education, Inc.; “an energy consulting firm that claims to achieve energy cost savings through education and behavior modification.”

Eyring also discovered several newspaper articles relating to school districts that have been dissatisfied with the services and eventual costs charged by Energy Education, Inc. (Cenergistic).  A school district in Beacon Falls, Conn., was so unhappy with the results that it finally bought out of the final year of the contract at a cost of $178,200.  A school district in Oak Brook, Ill., incurred $588,600 in expenses as the result of the agreement with Cenergistic, while only realizing about $395,000 in energy savings.  “These savings could have happened without Cenergistic’s involvement,” one school official was quoted as saying.

Additional information obtained by Eyring involves a school district in Lakeland, Fla., where a top administrator was discovered to have taken $70,000 in “gifts and other perks” from Energy Education, Inc., about five years ago, prior to the company’s name change.  The incident was investigated as a violation of state ethics rules and, subsequently, referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in regard to corrupt practices.

Based on the information provided by Cenergistic, during the Jan. 6 school board meeting, the company will get underway with its energy survey of the school district on Feb. 1.  “We’ll work within the current structure,” the company’s representative said.  “We’ll start where the school district is now.”