NEWFANE -- When it comes to NewBrook Elementary School's energy future, voters sent a mixed message during a lengthy, sometimes-contentious meeting Thursday night.
Residents from Newfane and Brookline turned down a 250-kilowatt solar-panel system that would have been constructed on school property. But voters later approved a companion project, which calls for a loan of up to $330,000 to install a new "air-to-air" heating and cooling system at the school. That electric-powered system is expected to be installed in time for winter, with the school's aging, oil-fueled boilers relegated to backup duty on only the coldest days.
"The voters want to see a different source other than burning fuel in there, which is a good thing. It will reduce our carbon footprint," said Ken McFadden, chairman of the Brookline-Newfane Joint School Board.
At the same time, however, McFadden is hoping voters will eventually reconsider the solar project, which had been envisioned as a power source for the new heating/cooling system.
"I don't think the solar part of it is dead. I just think it needs to be revisited with some clarification," he said.
With the elementary school's boiler and ventilation system in need of an overhaul, officials have spent more than three years looking at options including wood-fired and geothermal systems.
"I came into a situation where boilers were on their way out," NewBrook Principal Chris Pratt said Thursday. "I felt the need to explore alternative options rather than just replacing the boilers we already have."
Former school board member Kim Friedman, who still serves on an Energy Committee investigating the issue, said a primary goal was to "go as green as possible, but in a fiscally responsible way."
Other goals, listed on a handout at Thursday night's meeting, included:
-- Reduce or eliminate the school's carbon footprint.
-- Provide opportunities for student learning regarding the value of investing in renewable energy.
-- Promote use of renewable energy in educational facilities in Vermont.
Officials' research led them to a dual proposal: A developer would construct a ground-mounted solar array on school property, with the school leasing that equipment and possibly purchasing the system at some later date.
"An estimated annual lease payment of $20,000 would be offset by reduced energy costs from producing our own power," school officials wrote in their informational handout. "In other words, a lease payment of this amount would theoretically have no impact on the school budget, given that the school's energy costs are currently $35,000 annually ($20,000 for heating oil and $15,000 for electricity)."
The heating-oil savings would come from the second part of the proposal -- installing new "air-to-air heat pumps" that would both heat and cool NewBrook Elementary.
"Basically, it works a lot like a refrigerator," Friedman said.
The system would serve the school's needs until temperatures dropped below -5 degrees, at which point the boiler system "would need to kick on in order to provide backup heat," Friedman said.
Power generated by the solar panels, officials said, would more than cover all of the school's electricity needs -- including electricity for the new HVAC system.
"We would become the first school in the state that uses solar power to generate our electricity and an air-to-air heat-pump system to heat and cool the school," Friedman said.
The plan was presented as two articles for a special vote Thursday night. From the start, though, many of those who packed into the school's gymnasium were skeptical.
"Why didn't the board, if you truly wanted public input on all the options, lay out all the options for us?" asked Newfane resident Gary Katz, who also serves as Newfane Selectboard chairman.
Pratt maintained that officials had done just that during early informational meetings. Though those sessions were sparsely attended, Pratt said the board was following its understanding of the public's preference.
However, many meeting attendees on Thursday were worried about what they perceived as a lack of solid information about the energy plans. For instance, the warning for the meeting's second article had requested a $150,000 loan for the air-to-air system. But on Thursday's handout, board members said they needed to amend that loan to $330,000 "in light of new information obtained since tonight's meeting was warned over a month ago."
The loan would result in an annual debt payment of $51,000, which would require an estimated 1.2 percent tax hike. Officials broke down that tax increase as an extra $21 on a home that is assessed at $100,000.
Todd Lawley, also a Newfane Selectboard member and the town's road foreman, didn't like the idea of such a large investment.
"Our expenses aren't done for Irene right now for me, this is not an appropriate time to do this thing," Lawley said.
Others pointed out that there was not yet a firm figure for leasing the solar equipment from a developer. Also, the board had not committed to a time frame for possibly purchasing the system.
"We don't even know how long it will last. We don't have any statistics," another Newfane resident complained. "You're not telling us what the buyout would be after six or seven years."
Friedman defended the board's approach. In some respects, she said, school officials had gone as far as they could without obtaining voter approval.
"Legally, we do not have answers to your questions, because they are questions that are answered after the project goes out to bid," she said.
The school board did have backers including Margaret Wimberger of Williamsville, who said oil heat is "really not an option for us anymore."
"Climate change is catastrophic. It is here," Wimberger said.
Also arguing forcefully for the new systems was Gary Keiser, who teaches at NewBrook.
"I know exactly how bad the system is now that needs to be replaced," Keiser said.
Noting the board's estimated tax increase, Keiser said, "I'm looking at less than one tank of gas in my relatively fuel-efficient car to have these kids see the future that's worth it to me."
After more than 90 minutes of debate, a paper-ballot vote on the solar-panel project failed by a narrow margin -- 54 no to 52 yes.
Discussion on the other article -- the air-to-air heat-pump system and associated $330,000 loan -- subsequently veered into a procedural debate and nearly was postponed indefinitely.
But Pratt warned that, with no clear direction from voters, he and the board simply would have to buy new, oil-fueled boilers. Officials said the current system could function as a backup but no longer is viable as a primary heat source.
"If this is voted down, I have to go forward and get boilers this summertime to get it ready for fall," Pratt said. "That doesn't mean we can't explore things down the road."
Eventually, a somewhat diminished crowd voted 56-30 to approve the new HVAC system and the loan.
For the time being, barring any further consideration of a solar project, the new HVAC system will be installed and powered with electricity bought at retail rates, McFadden said.
"We'll have an electric heating system in the building with a backup that will be fuel oil," he said.
McFadden added that, in spite of the mixed outcome Thursday night, "I'm really glad that we had a well-engaged conversation, and we had over 100 voters."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.