The Cambridge School District is considering borrowing about $1.6 million for a series of projects that would increase energy savings in its buildings.

The school district’s current plan is not for the borrowing to be part of a referendum, but voters could petition to require a community-wide vote.

The school board voted in November 2019 to hire McKinstry, an engineering firm with an office in Madison, to complete a survey of the energy usage at Cambridge’s school buildings. The district paid $12,500 for the study.

In early 2020, McKinstry presented the school board a list of possible projects that would save the district money on its energy costs. The school board’s finance committee has been weighing each of those projects over several meetings.

The projects are meant to reduce energy consumption and utility spending.

Cambridge has set its sights on about 12 energy improvement projects, which include replacing fluorescent lights with LED lighting inside and outside all three buildings, reinsulating exterior openings like doors, windows and wall joints and adding solar panels at Cambridge Elementary.

School district business manager Mark Worthing said all of these improvements, would cost about $1.6 million, which the district would borrow.

Cambridge School Board member Mike Huffman said at the Aug. 17 board meeting that the district would use the money it saves from its utility bills after these projects reduce energy costs to pay off that debt.

McKinstry estimates that Cambridge could see about $96,000 in annual energy savings. And McKinstry guarantees energy savings, Worthing said. If Cambridge didn’t see that amount of energy savings, McKinstry would cover the financial loss.

Cambridge could potentially receive about $100,000 in incentives for reducing its energy consumption, the plan from McKinstry said.

The district would be paying off this debt for about 15 years, Huffman said. And this borrowing, Worthing said, would not raise the revenue limit.

McKinstry’s fees as a project manager for the improvements are included in the total cost.

Board members questioned whether this was a good moment to borrow funds for the project, given the financial uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m very supportive of the concept,” board president Tracy Smithback-Travis said. “I have some hesitation though, given everything our district is going to be trying to do in the next 30 days.”

“This is something else in an unprecedented time,” she continued. “The timing is what we need to be very mindful of right now.”

Smithback-Travis expressed concern over adding excess work for administrators, and uncertainty for families. As schools prepare to reopen, does this project fit the priorities of the district right now, Smithback-Travis asked?

Board member Courtney Reed Jenkins asked if looking at the 100-page contract with McKinstry would be a strain on administrators, or if the district had an attorney who could evaluate it.

Smithback-Travis also asked what would happen if school buildings close because of COVID-19, like they did in March. If a loan payment is based on facility usage, would the district suffer trying to pay the loan back if schools closed again, she asked?

“We don’t know what our facility usage looks like six months from now,” Smithback-Travis said.

Huffman replied that if anything, a school closure would help pay off the debt for this project faster, because Cambridge would save more than expected in utility costs, generating more for loan payments.

The process to borrow any amount over $1 million is detailed and time-sensitive, Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said.

The school board would need to pass a resolution, hold a public hearing and allow a 30-day window for opposed Cambridge voters to sign a petition calling for a referendum.

A referendum isn’t necessarily required, Worthing said. The district would only have to put a question on the ballot if 20 percent of the electorate signed a petition, Worthing said.

And a resolution would need to be passed before October, when the district will finalize its 2020-21 budget, Worthing said.

Board member Jim Womble suggested continuing with the process and letting the public weigh in.

“Why don’t we take that first step and find out if a referendum is required, if the public demands a referendum,” Womble said.

“I think the community will have questions about it,” Nikolay said, but “we do have answers. I’m comfortable moving forward.”

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