In another tight budget year, a few local school districts are considering projects that could save them money on utilities in the future.

Somerville-based Regional School Unit 12 and Gardiner-based RSU 11 are undertaking energy audits of their buildings to see how they could become more energy-efficient. Hallowell-based RSU 2 will ask voters in June to approve a bond for a package of capital improvement projects, including the replacement of inefficient boilers.

RSU 12 and RSU 11 would accomplish the improvements through performance contracting, which is fairly common in Maine schools. Winthrop Public Schools completed a performance contracting project last year, for example.

Performance contracting is supposed to provide a guarantee. The company that does the work projects how much schools should save on energy after making upgrades and pays the difference if the savings fall short.

After the school board’s Facilities Committee interviewed three companies that sought to take on RSU 12’s project, the board hired Siemens. The district will pay $20,000 for an energy audit of its buildings but has not committed itself to making any upgrades.

Superintendent Howard Tuttle said performance contracting was the best way for RSU 12 to finance the work its schools need.

“RSU 12 is in a fairly unstable situation, and it’s just not good timing to go for a bond,” Tuttle said, alluding to Wiscasset’s withdrawal and possible withdrawals by other towns. “There’s work that’s been delayed for years, and it’s time to jump in and get our facilities updated.”

RSU 12 has heating systems that are newer than those of many other districts. Tuttle said the district’s biggest need seems to be insulation to create a tight seal in buildings.

The energy audit that’s underway also will examine windows, lighting and ventilation.

The audit should be finished within a few weeks, at which time Siemens will present district officials a list of improvements to consider making. Until then, district officials won’t know the total cost of the contract or how much the district would have to borrow to get it started.

Although energy costs would be reduced, RSU 12 would continue to budget the same amount, using the difference to pay off the loan. After the payback period, the upgrades would then provide net savings for the district.

OLD BOILERS TARGETED

Gardiner-based RSU 11 already has the financing set for its performance contracting project.

The State Board of Education, at the recommendation of the education commissioner, awarded RSU 11 a Qualified School Construction Bond in the amount of $764,457, the entire amount Maine had remaining from its 2010 allocation in the federal stimulus package. The bond is interest-free.

RSU 11 Business Manager Andrea Disch said receiving a sum that large is helpful for big-ticket purchases such as boilers, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some of the boilers at the district’s middle and high schools are past their useful life.

RSU 11 put out a request for qualifications and has received three responses. District officials will interview all three companies and choose one to conduct an energy audit of all the district’s schools. From a list provided by the contractor, the school board’s Finance Committee will choose projects based on their payback period.

It’s likely that heating projects will be a high priority, given the high cost of heating school buildings and the potential for savings from installing burners that are more efficient or that burn natural gas.

In the fall, RSU 11 swapped out a burner on one boiler each at Gardiner Area High School and Laura E. Richards School to burn natural gas. In March, the first full month of natural gas heating at the high school, the bill was $1,500. Heating the school with oil, at about 305 gallons per day, would have cost about $33,000 for the month, Disch said.

“It was quite eye-opening to us, to see what savings there were just from converting one of our burners,” she said.

Some schools, such as River View Community School in South Gardiner, are too far from natural gas pipelines to change fuels; but they can still benefit from other improvements that will be considered for all schools: lighting, ventilation and making sure the buildings are tightly sealed.

Disch said ideally, all improvements will be completed by the end of the school year in 2015.

JUNE BOND FOR RSU 2

Using a bond to finance capital projects, including energy upgrades, is also the plan in RSU 2. When voters go to the polls on June 10 for the school budget referendum, they’ll also vote on whether the RSU can go out for a $1.52 million bond.

“The idea around the bond is it’s much more efficient to budget these large capital projects all at once with a bond payment that’s spread out over years,” Superintendent Virgel Hammonds said.

A new boiler at Hall-Dale High School and Middle School — the district’s largest building and therefore the most expensive to heat — would cost upward of $300,000. It would be difficult to make room for that in the budget in a single year, Hammonds said, but by spreading out the cost with a bond, RSU 2 can make that improvement and others for a considerably lower annual cost.

Payments on a 15-year bond are estimated at $160,000 annually, but district officials expect most of that, if not all of it, to be offset by savings from lower oil consumption and fewer boiler repairs.

The projects to be funded include natural gas boilers for the middle-high school campuses at Hall-Dale and Richmond, a burner conversion for natural gas at Hall-Dale Elementary School, natural gas rooftop heating and ventilation units at the central office in Hallowell and a new oil boiler for Monmouth Academy.

Hall-Dale Middle School, Monmouth Academy and the central office would receive new roofs. Several schools would have more-secure doors installed, and there would be nearly $200,000 in other improvements at the central office, including paving, lighting and electrical systems.

Dresden Elementary, where the budget for improvements is only $22,800, would receive new carpeting, upgraded plumbing fixtures and new doors.

Hammonds said many of those improvements have been needed for years but were continually put off in favor of funding educational programming and staff.

“When our towns were individual school systems, the easiest things to reduce were capital improvements,” he said. “So all of our buildings are in dire need of some upgrades.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645[email protected]Twitter: @s_e_mcmillan@s_e_mcmillan