Schools’ public relations versus reality

Going green sounds good, but what about when the dollars-and-cents aspect of it doesn’t match the public relations part? What about when going green environmentally doesn’t fit in with going green economically?

An example: A Fort Worth, Texas school in the Keller Independent School District is rightfully proud of its energy-efficient Timberview Middle School. With its fruit and vegetable garden, geothermal heating and air conditioning, rooftop solar panels, white roof to absorb less heat, and waterless urinals, the year-old structure is billed as a school of the future.

Accolades have rolled in. The building is the first LEED-certified Keller district school, according to the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, which means it was honored for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for green building practices.

The Education Department also recognized it as one of America’s first “Green Ribbon” schools.

Another component of the campus is its lone wind turbine, next to the athletic field by the concession building. Paid for with voter-approved bond money, the Skystream turbine is billed by its maker as a product that can “produce electricity in your own backyard.”

“It’s the first compact, user-friendly, all-inclusive wind generator (with controls and inverter built in) designed to provide quiet, clean electricity in very low winds,” a brochure says.

After voters rejected an effort this year to raise taxes and district officials scoured the budget to find ways to save money (a $3 million surplus unexpectedly turned up), somebody asked questions about the turbine.

Call him quixotic, but Larry West, regional manager for the United Educators Association, tilted at that windmill in pursuit of the ideal that every penny in a cash-strapped government budget be scrutinized.

As readers of the Dave Lieber Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram first learned, West filed an open-records request with the district that asked how much the turbine cost and when it would pay for itself.

Good questions for sure. The answers surprised him.

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The turbine cost $16,000 to install, the district answered. The payback in electricity savings would come in “roughly 26 years.”

West acknowledges that the money involved is minute in a multimillion-dollar budget but points to a bigger principle.

“When you’re asking your population for a tax rollback election, it’s a bad idea to spend something that sticks above a school and won’t make money for 26 years,” he said.

“It’s going to need maintenance. I bet it needs thousands of dollars in maintenance, which push off the profit.”

The turbine could be looked at as a symbol of government public relations puffery versus reality.

“It’s kind of an example of the overall function of government,” West said. “We spend money on something and say it’s going to help. Yet when examined closely, it costs money and doesn’t save money. That kind of goes against its original purpose. Isn’t the whole idea of being green about saving money?

“It’s going to take 26 years to pay off. I’m questioning whether that wind turbine will still be spinning in 26 years. I doubt it.”

The Watchdog doesn’t bring this up to bash environmental education and the value of teaching students about energy conservation.

As district spokesman Bryce Nieman said: “It’s an instructional tool for students. Students can learn about energy conservation and other ways to generate electricity, alternate energy means.”

He says the turbine helps trim the campus’s energy bills. “It’s better than nothing.”

All true, but the reason for sharing this is to show how one citizen asked questions about a school district’s finances. In Texas and elsehwere, this is an easy thing to do.

Dave Lieber's popular button was written about in USA Today.

The Public Information Act allows anyone in Texas to inquire about the workings of state, county, local and school governments. West took advantage of that and learned the story behind the story. Too often, we forget to do that. Only by asking questions can we get answers.

Research your rights under your state’s open records laws by googling on the Internet for the law.

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Dave Lieber shows Americans how to fight back against corporate deceptions in his wonderful national award-winning book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong. Are you tired of losing time, money and aggravation to all the assaults on our wallets? Learn how to fight back with ease — and win. Get the book here.

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Look at these trees! Video and pix. Wrath of the power company.

Look at this tree.

Bob P.  from Arlington, Texas sent me this photo of his backyard tree, cut by Oncor Electric Delivery’s tree-pruning company.

The tree pruners "probably laughed about it all day long," the angry homeowner says.

The tree pruners "probably laughed about it all day long," the angry homeowner says.

“Only someone with a sick sense of humor would ‘prune’ a tree the way the one in my backyard was cut,” he says. “The Oncor contractor and the rest of his team probably laughed about it all day long. It would have been merciful to cut the entire tree to the ground.”

For years, I’ve received heart-breaking letters from folks whose trees are butchered by Oncor Electric Delivery, which serves one-third of Texas. Oncor owns the lines and transformers that the retail electricity providers offer homeowners and businesses.

Oncor tree trim by Rodger Mallison for Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Oncor tree trim by Rodger Mallison for Fort Worth Star-Telegram

As I shared in the Nov. 29, 2009 Dave Lieber column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Oncor has operated an ineffective, poorly-managed, non-communicative and disorganized tree-trimming program.

Now along comes Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate.

Tate is one of America’s finest mayors, and his town, not surprisingly, is the best little town in Texas.

This is one more reason he gets the title.

Tate is an old-fashioned, handshake mayor. He could easily have been a U.S. Marshall a hundred years ago. Now he’s taken Grapevine to the highest heights. And he’s taking on Oncor for the butchering of hundreds of trees in the best little town in Texas.

“I feel like The Watchdog on this,” he told me.

Tate is a watchdog that won’t let go.

Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate/Courtesy Mike Lewis Photography

Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate/Courtesy Mike Lewis Photography

Turns out Oncor has messed up trees in other area towns, too. Homeowners complain that when they call for information about tree trimmings on their property, they can’t get any information. When the trimmers arrive, they often don’t speak English.

Tate complained to the Public Utility Commission. He said that got their attention. And it did.

I recently attended a summit with Tate, a few other mayors and top officials of Oncor.

Oncor is overhauling its tree trimming program.

The most important part is the addition of mandatory “customer sensitivity” classes for supervisors of the five tree trimming companies used by Oncor.

Oncor has also created a toll-free number (1-800-518-2380) for homeowners who have questions when tags are placed on their door. Usually, a tag means a tree trimming crew may come in five days or so to trim away from electricity lines.

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See for yourself. In this brief video by Dave Lieber, I show you some examples of Oncor’s tree trimming work in Grapevine.

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More information

oncor 1Visit

– State law prohibits residents from trimming trees near power lines.

– Oncor urges homeowners to use Oncor-sent trimmers or hire their own qualified trimmers.

– Homeowners can also pay to bury lines underground.

– Homeowners should avoid planting spreading trees within 50 feet of power lines.

– Read Texas law here about overhead power lines.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. His book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, won two national book awards in 2009 for social change.