As the first certified Cool School in the state, Helman Elementary in Ashland is the model, says Gov. John Kitzhaber, of a school that cuts budget-sapping energy bills, provides jobs through retrofitting and offers a healthier environment for learning.

As the first certified Cool School in the state, Helman Elementary in Ashland is the model, says Gov. John Kitzhaber, of a school that cuts budget-sapping energy bills, provides jobs through retrofitting and offers a healthier environment for learning.

After a tour of the much-modernized, 45-year old building, Kitzhaber launched his Cool School initiative before a Helman assembly of students and parents, noting it would whack utility bills by 35 percent in 500 public schools.

Using $2 million in federal stimulus funds, the program this summer will conduct energy audits, informing schools of energy efficiencies that can be achieved in the near term, with more capital-intensive steps targeted for summer 2012, the governor said.

The program is funded by $39 million in federal Energy Conservation Bonds, he noted, with nothing taken away from funding for schools. The bonds would be paid back from energy savings over a two- to eight-year period, he added.

"For every $1 million spent, 15 family-wage jobs will be created in local communities. It's a ripple effect in the supply chain that creates economic activity," Kitzhaber said. "For some communities that are flat on their back, this can be a huge help. You're borrowing money and it's a separate pool of resources not competing with K-12 funding."

Helman got an energy audit through the program last week, winning favorable marks for new lighting and other features paid for by a voter-passed bond issue two years ago, said Principal Susan Hollandsworth. However, she added, the school was built with skimpy insulation in 1966 and needs retrofitting of some systems to last another 40 years.

Sustainable upgrades go beyond utility savings, said Kitzhaber, noting they decrease absenteeism, carbon dioxide, asthma, mold and attention issues, making for "a healthier place to learn ... and Helman is in the forefront of that."

Impure air allows CO2 and mold to affect students and teachers, he said, resulting in more sick and absent people and more expensive, less effective learning.

"Every day that you have high carbon dioxide levels and mold in the air is a day when a school is not as healthy as it should be," he said.

The governor was led on a tour of energy features at Helman by energy analyst Jean-Pierre Batmale of the state Energy Department in Salem. After inspecting the school's boiler room, Kitzhaber said, "With a boiler like that, from the 1930s, it's tough heating a building like this, especially in cold winters and long, wet springs."

Kitzhaber acknowledged the school's advances in lighting, including windows that Batmale told him were installed a decade ago with parents' help. Photo-voltaic solar panels are also planned for roofs.

"They've set a good foundation here at Helman," Batmale told the governor, "and now we need to tighten the building up (with insulation)."

With poor insulation, lighting and HVAC, Kitzhaber told the assembly, there will be a chain — a second-grader having trouble reading, a teacher with asthma after years of breathing bad air and a superintendent struggling to pay high utility bills — the second highest expense in education.

"A modest investment in energy efficiency will change the lives of all these people, put money back in education and improve the economy," he said, adding that such steps in Washington state brought a 15 percent drop in absent students because of flu.

Ashland School Superintendent Juli DiChiro pointed to "direct experience" participation by Helman students, who have "done a lot of work and showed that it could be done." Students showed the governor a video presentation of their work eradicating invasive species and restoring nearby Ashland Pond for wildlife. He sang the Helman Dragon school song, to the tune of "Puff, the Magic Dragon," — noting laughingly that he knew the song "when I was in college, before your school was built."

At the end of a news conference outside Helman, Ashland School Board member Heidi Parker told the governor that Cool Schools was a laudable program, but Ashland schools are facing another $1.5 million in cuts after painful layoffs and program reductions in recent years.

"I'm skeptical ... and all Oregon schools are in big trouble," Parker said.

Kitzhaber told her that, with a $3.5 billion deficit, "it's a tough biennium. ... and I wish I knew where a pot of money was but I don't. It's not going to turn around this biennium."

The governor pointed to the positive effects of "reinvestment in schools" and told Parker that next biennium might look better for any turnaround.

The governor, accompanied by his girlfriend Cylvia Hayes, presented students with the state's first Cool School flag. He also toured Rogue Creamery in Central Point as part of his Rebuild Oregon tour.