During the 2024 CASBO annual conference, Rick Brown and Ali Chehrehsaz of TerraVerde Energy met with Michael Johnston of Clovis Unified and Don Ulrich of School Strategies for a conversation on energy cost inflation impacting schools.


The Backdrop of this Conversation was:

  • The State is grappling with a budget deficit, and
  • Districts are facing revenue ambiguity.  Meanwhile,
  • Electricity costs continue to rise rapidly, with no signs of slowdown.


Given the above, we explored what actions can business and facility officials take to set up their districts for long-term success in managing their energy costs that lasts beyond their tenures at their districts.

For context, Clovis Unified, operates over 44 school campuses, with a staff of over 6,000, and serving over 42,000 students.

The district has had energy cost management ingrained in their practice for decades. They installed solar at their schools starting in 2013. Over the years, they have added solar to most their schools, added batteries, conducted multiple rounds of energy efficiency upgrades. They also have an intentional culture of smart energy usage and conservation in addition to measurement, verification, and reporting.

Interview: We started the conversation by touching on culture

Ali: Regarding culture, there is a saying that: winners act like winners before they’re winners. The culture precedes success. It does not get tacked on as an afterthought. As it relates to Clovis Unified, how have you established a culture of success?

Don: Dr. Floyd Buchanan was the first Superintendent of Clovis USD back in 1960. He established a culture of personal accountability. If you want people to save energy (when no one is looking), you need people to have the behaviors that are supporting the culture that is in place.

Michael: Dollars saved by energy efficiency can be used to support the district to be able to maintain and hire highly qualified staff. We seek to be transparent in all of our efforts. We have been involved in solar since 2013, we generate around 55% of the energy consumed within our district.

Rick: Accountability at the board meeting, I recall there being a high degree of trust in Michael and Don at the board meetings. How did that occur?

Michael: The board trusted the CBO and Superintendent based on years of delivering on promises. P.S. The notion of: “say what you’re going to do & then do what you say” comes to mind.

Ali: How did you leverage internal and external resources to build a successful team around you? Talk about integrating partners into your district.

Michael: We build relationships, we collaborate with partners, we don’t look at them as just vendors. Getting the right people at the table is key and getting the most information from your consultant is key. Involvement in CASBO and CASH as well as other organizations has paid off. We benefit from engaging with other districts and we have gotten some of our best ideas from other districts.

Ali: Regarding “Partners” – talk more about what that means to you.

Rick: This means being honest and working hand and hand with each other. Solving problems and establishing long term relationships is essential.

Don: Partners should go out of their way to establish trust and confidence rather than being transactional.

Ali: Let’s talk about being a leader in the community – How can schools serve as role models for sustainability?

Don: We have to know our constituents and lead accordingly. We had to be careful early on to not upset certain segments of our community by appearing to push a certain “green agenda”; instead we focused on promoting “cash green”.

Michael: It is important that we share information that we are good stewards of community resources. Communicating the benefits of our investments is important because some may see energy infrastructure as an unnecessary luxury if they are not aware of the savings that come from these systems. We have a tract record of success, and this helps us establish trust and confidence.

Rick: Are there any shortcuts or rules to getting the public to support investments in energy programs?

Michael: No real shortcuts but it comes back to transparency and communication. I have heard Clovis Unified described as a “rich district” but in reality, we are facility rich and operationally poor.

Ali: How do you preserve knowledge within your district?

Michael: Preserving knowledge involves mentoring staff members and include telling them what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it. Bringing staff up to speed and making sure they are able to share their job information is very important so that they can pass this along to those that follow them   All departments should be involved in sharing energy project plans, getting buy-in is important. Getting individual schools involved in district programs is important.

Don: At Clovis Unified we added a metric for school principal evaluations to have them be accountable for energy saving. This gives them accountability and helps them be a part of the program at large.

Rick: What was the biggest challenge in the past?

Don: Getting buy in from the board to spend capital funds, that could be spent on school facility specific project, towards a solar project. We were one of the first districts to get support from our community to do a General Obligation bond to build our first set of solar projects, way before solar became popular.

Ali: What is the biggest challenge in the future?

Michael: Budget challenges, changing policy and legislative issues. We want to be proactive in addressing issues and challenges we are facing.

Rick: What advice do you have for other districts?

Michael: Districts need to stay on top of the performance of their energy systems and not assume that all is well. They need to know if solar savings are adding up. They should know when the last time their systems were inspected and how they are performing.

Don: Districts need to look into innovative energy solutions. Potential examples include becoming their own energy service providers through a JPA with other district, sponsoring community solar projects, and engagement with their partners to stay on top of the evolving energy landscape.

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