San Antonio’s largest public school district has money blowing out the door – sometimes literally, in the form of cold air – as neglect deteriorates the heating and cooling systems in some of its buildings, according to documents obtained by the Rivard Report

Northside Independent School District, known for its sprawling geographic area and high enrollment growth, spends millions annually to build new schools and renovate existing campuses. In 2018, when trustees sought voter approval for an $849 million bond, Superintendent Brian Woods told the board that roughly two-thirds of the money would fund updates at the district’s existing schools.

But even as the district pours millions into projects at its older facilities, reports show it has at least sometimes neglected to maintain them. For example, an energy audit conducted at a Northside high school last October shows the heating and cooling system had missing air filters, disconnected air conditioning parts, and wiring errors. 

“It’s like we are building Ferraris and treating them like Yugos,” said former Northside ISD Energy Management Coordinator Ryan Ussery, who shared the energy use reports with the Report. Ussery worked for Northside ISD from February 2017 to January 2020 before leaving the district.

The Rivard Report shared the energy audit reports and allegations of poor maintenance with Northside officials. In an email, district spokesman Barry Perez said Northside “believes strongly in the promotion of energy conservation.”

“The mission of our Energy Management department is to reduce energy and water use throughout the district while helping maintain an environment conducive to learning,” Perez said.

Northside’s relatively high energy costs, now topping $17.5 million per year, are not related to its size, but to energy-hungry non-academic facilities many other districts don’t have. These include the like the Northside Swim Center, which opened in 2013. With an enrollment of nearly 106,000 students and 145 facilities adding up to 16 million square feet, the district is the largest in the San Antonio area and the fourth largest in Texas.

But not all of that usage can be chalked up to the district’s size. Electricity usage records also show that Northside is paying more per square foot for electricity than it was eight years ago while electricity rates have stayed mostly flat.  

Perez said the district recognizes its costs have increased over time, but so has its number of buildings. The district has added 12 new schools and six new support facilities since the 2011-2012 school year, along with approximately 9,500 new students and 1,170 full-time staff members. More after-school activities have also increased energy use. Extreme weather has also played a role, Perez said.

The implications of Northside’s approach to energy use reverberate beyond the district. Like most public school districts, Northside receives hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in incentives to reduce usage from CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipally owned electric and gas utility. Money to pay for these incentives comes from CPS Energy customers’ bills, costing residential customers anywhere from $3 to $5 per month.

San Antonio is also unlikely to make substantial progress on its air pollution and climate goals without buy-in from school districts, among the largest energy users in the region. Last October, San Antonio adopted a goal of zeroing out its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Energy use in buildings accounts for about half of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

By not following regulatory checks, Northside puts itself and district students at risk for reduced comfort, poor indoor air quality, increased energy costs, seeing the lifespan of facilities and equipment shortened, and basic environmental hazards, Ussery said. 

Before leaving the district in early January, Ussery shared multiple reports that would be considered public under Texas open records law. None were marked “confidential.” 

Perez said that “work is underway to address specific maintenance issues and/or suggestions cited by either district staff or external contractors.”

“While many of the suggested improvements have been completed, others are in progress, scheduled for work, or under review,” Perez continued.

Maintenance at Issue

Hundreds of pages of reports by district staff and outside contractors detail broken equipment, lack of maintenance, and improperly set control systems that drive up energy waste at Northside schools. The records Ussery shared span from 2015 to 2019.

In late 2018 and early 2019, inspections at O’Connor High School found 141 equipment errors, causing an estimated 15 percent of the building’s energy use to be wasted, according to a report by Houston-based engineering consultant DBR Engineering, hired to work for the district.

The most common issues contractors found involved simple fixes: Fan belts needed tightening or replacing, air handling units needed cleaning, leaking control valves needed repair, manual valves were set incorrectly, and the linkages that allow air to flow in and out of duct systems needed repairing and adjusting. 

Many of the issues DBR found at O’Connor High School were identical to those found at Warren High school three years prior. Over five months ending in August 2016, DBA inspectors found 155 issues at Warren, resulting in 27 percent waste of that campus’ energy use. 

For both high schools, the money spent on energy efficiency improvements would have paid for itself over time. According to DBR, fixing all 141 problems at O’Connor would save more than $106,000 per year, offering a payback after 10 years. At Warren, the district could have realized more than $214,000 in savings per year, resulting in a less than six-year payback. 

Northside’s sprawling high school campuses weren’t the only buildings with high energy uses because of broken equipment or faulty maintenance. Elementary schools also had chronic maintenance issues, according to reports. 

At Murnin Elementary School, located in far West San Antonio near Sea World, inspectors with Fluid Balance International, another Texas-based contractor working for the district, found in August 2015 that three of 14 air handling units were not running at full capacity. Three exhaust fans weren’t running.

But the biggest issue was with the control system. An inspector wrote that even the building’s cooling needs were highest, only one chiller could run at a time without a manual override. That’s because the chill water system was run as a redundant, not parallel system, the report states. This resulted in the building having only half its designed-for cooling capacity.

“It begs the question,” said Ussery, “how often are these schools systematically inspected for regular maintenance?”

Those problems persisted into 2016, the reports state. When Fluid Balance returned to inspect Murnin Elementary in March 2016, none of the problems had been fixed.

Fluid Balance International inspectors found dozens of mechanical problems at each of the schools it investigated in 2015. 

Overall, Ussery attributed the energy waste to a lack of interest among district leadership and a lack of adequate staff in his and the facilities departments. On the energy efficiency side, Ussery worked with two employees, and a shared secretary. The three of them had to review more than 1,000 invoices per month. 

Ussery also attributed many issues to a lack of HVAC specialists in Northside’s maintenance department, which is responsible for doing preventative repairs. Maintenance workers are supposed to regularly change fan belts and air filters to keep the systems running, he said.

“All this dirt and stuff is getting caught in the coils and passed through into [children’s] developing lungs,” Ussery said. 

Ussery said he tried to get maintenance staff to take these problems seriously but routinely encountered a lack of interest from managers in following the district’s energy efficiency and maintenance policies.  

“This is basically a failure to do basic preventative maintenance,” Ussery said.  

Rebates and Incentives

The wasted energy is relevant not only for residents of the district, who passed an $849 million facilities bond in 2018, but for everyone in San Antonio. That’s because, since 2011-12, Northside received an average of $347,000 per year in rebates and other financial incentives from CPS Energy. 

From the 2011-12 school year to 2019-20, CPS Energy gave Northside a total of $3.12 million in incentives, more than any other district in San Antonio. 

On Thursday, San Antonio City Council members voted to extend these energy efficiency and demand response programs by one more year, at a cost to its customers of $70 million. 

To compare Northside’s usage with other districts, the Report sought electricity usage records from all 15 school districts in San Antonio. Even though taxpayers pay the districts’ energy bills, CPS Energy lawyers refused to provide these records, arguing that they’re considered “confidential customer information.” The Report then filed open records requests and received records from each school district individually.

The records, along with reports posted on Northside’s website, show that over the past decade, the district has paid an increasingly steep cost for energy to operate its growing footprint of facilities. In 2011-12, the district paid $0.94 per square foot. By 2017-18, the cost per square foot rose to $1.16, an increase of more than 23 percent. In the same period, City Council approved a one-time rate increase of 4.25 percent. 

In 2007, Texas lawmakers passed a bill that required districts to conserve more energy. Close to two decades before, Northside implemented its own policy, directing its staff to use less power and adopt an energy conservation mindset. Perez says that district officials believe they are abiding by those policies.

Carol Harle, who presides over the district’s board of trustees, recognized the complex responsibility of managing the district’s facilities – at the same time, administrators must cater to “60-year-old buildings and 6-day-old buildings” – but said she believes Northside’s leadership is taking energy and facility management seriously.

Some of Northside’s yearly energy increase could have been offset by rebate programs offered by CPS Energy to return money back to school districts. In CPS’ demand-response program, the utility pays districts to voluntarily reduce the amount of electricity used during high-demand periods. In the summer, when students are out of class and schools aren’t operating at full capacity, districts are well-positioned to take advantage of demand response.

CPS officials make their rounds mid-school-year, presenting checks to school boards for the money the districts saved over the summer. In 2019, CPS gave Northside a check back for $168,802, the result of 33 campuses – less than a third of all the district’s schools – participating in the program. 

Northside leaders are considering adding more district facilities to the demand-response program, Perez told the Report.

Not all districts participate in demand response, but the ones that do are rewarded with large sums of money. San Antonio ISD, with less than half of Northside’s enrollment, earned $162,473 from the program in 2019.

In 2019-20, Judson ISD, a district about a quarter of Northside’s size, received $336,179 back from CPS Energy. In 2018, Judson was awarded $280,973 for its conservation efforts. Edgewood ISD, which enrolled close to 10,000 students in 2019, received $306,000 from CPS.

At its size, Northside could receive up to $500,000 from the demand-response program, Ussery estimated.

“There’s so much more they could be doing,” he said.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.