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Daily Pilot

Apodaca: Irvine Unified casts a ray of inventiveness

By Patrice Apodaca

6:21 PM PST, December 8, 2012

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Say you're an educator and you had an opportunity to save money, do something beneficial for the environment and provide an excellent teaching opportunity for students.

It would be a no-brainer, right?

So why isn't every school district in California racing to imitate Irvine Unified's successful solar panel project?

The answer is that too few school districts are run like IUSD. That is, they lack the vision, flexibility and willingness to experiment, and the entrepreneurial framework. And yes, I'm using the word "entrepreneurial" in reference to public schools, for it is a quality considered rare in any public-sector setting, but which all districts would do well to encourage.

In an age of extreme austerity and discord in our public school system, Irvine Unified's solar panel project provides a clear example of what can be accomplished by a group of smart, committed employees who have been set free to figure out a better way to do something and are given the support they need to make it happen.

IUSD's solar story started in 2008, when some district employees attended a conference in Norway, paid for by the nonprofit Energy Coalition, to learn more about energy conservation.

The group came back with lots of new ideas for trimming energy consumption and costs, but didn't yet have a specific plan to pursue solar power, figuring such a big step would include major start-up costs. But after extensive research, they learned of an opportunity to partner with the solar energy company SunEdison, which would require no out-of-pocket costs for the district.

Under the deal, SunEdison would own all the equipment and be responsible for its installation and maintenance. IUSD would buy the power generated from the solar grid at a significant savings compared to its existing utility costs. Concurrently, the district would implement conservation measures, from cardboard box recycling to asking teachers to forgo unnecessary classroom refrigerators and microwave ovens.

One of the niftiest features of the proposal was the plan to work the solar project into the district's curriculum. The purpose wasn't advocacy, said Mark Sontag, IUSD's curriculum coordinator and one of the solar project's champions.

"The intent is awareness," he said. "The fiscal savings are one thing, but it's the way you have students look at their interaction with the natural world."

When Sontag and others working on the project went to the school board with their idea, they were able to offer the added value of 18 specific lesson plans for upper-grade elementary students that involved such tasks as experimenting with changing the angles and shapes of wind turbines, making solar cookers, and racing solar-powered cars.

The proposal won a resounding 5-0 approval from the board. The first phase of the project, which included installing solar panels on 13 rooftops and two parking lot shade structures throughout the district, was completed in February 2010.

I saw one of the shade structures while visiting Sontag at district headquarters, and to say it's unobtrusive would be an understatement. If he hadn't told me, I'd never have guessed that the parking lot covering was also a solar installation.

The results of the project so far have been impressive, with both savings and energy production surpassing initial projections. IUSD figures it has cut $240,000 a year from its energy bill, and that's at a time when the district has continued to grow.

Now Phase 2 is underway, calling for carport installations at nine additional sites. The district expects them to be completed by September, and the amount of energy and cost savings generated could far surpass the total of the first phase because of improvements in technology and the size of the new installations.

Community support for the project has been overwhelmingly positive, Sontag said, and the few concerns raised about the impact on trees in some areas have been addressed.

What made this project possible — I'd venture to guess that it would never have happened without it — is Irvine Unified's almost Silicon Valley-style culture. It's a style that not only encourages creative problem-solving through a flattened organizational structure, but also empowers employees.

"We administrators aren't pigeonholed into tight job descriptions," Sontag said. That freedom allowed him to work closely with other employees, such as the district's maintenance and operations chief, Joe Hoffman, a nuts-and-bolts guy who's good at "removing obstacles."

That get-it-done mentality seeps down to the school-site level, where teachers who come up with promising ideas are also given the support they need. One teacher, for example, led a switch from plastic to reusable utensils. The nutrition director found a way to recycle pizza boxes by inserting wax paper to absorb the grease.

Good ideas, of course, can come from anywhere. Irvine Unified has no exclusive claim to inventiveness and resourcefulness, and the district certainly benefits from its location in an involved, active, mostly middle-class community.

Even so, the lesson Irvine offers is pretty simple: If you hire good people, encourage them to think, and give them a lot of latitude to get stuff done, progress can happen, even in the most challenging times.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.