Students at Huntington Beach's Dwyer Middle School protest the planned location of solar panels at the school. (Photo by: Dana Twining)

Thursday, January 27, 2011 | The non-competitive bidding system the Huntington Beach City School District used to obtain an $8 million contract for solar panels generated so much heat in northern California that a state senator has introduced legislation requiring competitive bids for such projects.

“It’s a huge loophole in the law,” said Adam Keigwin, chief of staff to Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. “There’s no denying competitive bids can save taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Chevron Energy Solutions, a division of Chevron, is installing solar panels at five schools in Huntington Beach after being awarded a no-bid contract last summer.

One of those installations, at Dwyer Middle School, sparked student protests and opposition from parents because the district plans to install the panels in an area where eighth grade graduation ceremonies have been held for 90 years.

The site, next to the school’s physical education field, was chosen because it offered the best connection to existing electrical equipment and it was the least expensive option.

The students and parents want the carport-style panels moved to a less visible section of the school grounds where they won’t disrupt the graduation tradition.

Parents have used the controversy as a teachable moment for the 11-to-14-year-olds in how to responsibly petition government for change. A student demonstration is scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

The No Competitive Bid Law

In general, government agencies, including school districts, are required to seek competitive bids for large projects to save money and prevent insider deals between contractors and government officials.

But in the early 1980s, when California was trying to develop alternative energy sources, then-Assemblyman (and now former Governor) Gray Davis authored a law that exempted solar panels from the competitive bid requirements.

But these days, Keigwin said, there are plenty of companies offering solar energy and the competitive bid exemption is outdated. Davis reportedly has said it’s time for the law to be repealed but he didn’t immediately return a telephone call.

Yee, in the news release announcing his bill, said officials in some northern California communities have made deals with Chevron that raised other questions.

The release cited the Peralta Community College District in Oakland, which signed an $8.1 million contract with Chevron Energy Solutions for a solar project “without seeking competitive bids that could have saved the district $1.5 million,” the news release said.

“The contract with Chevron came after they donated thousands of dollars to the district’s foundation,” the news release said, and, it added, despite an offer from SunPower Corp. in San Jose that could have saved the district a million dollars and would have used more productive solar panels.”

Chevron Energy Solutions “plied officials at the Mt. Diablo Unified School District with drinks and golf discounts as the company worked to secure one of the nation’s largest school solar-power contracts,” according to a story in the Contra Costa Times.

The Times said “following the news reports, the district decided against a no-bid contract and signed an agreement with SunPower Corp. after a bidding process.”

Yee said his bill “will help eliminate corruption and cronyism in awarding public energy contracts. In addition to protecting public funds, SB 118 will help ensure that the best technology is used and that we get as many clean energy projects on line as possible.”

A spokesperson for Chevron didn’t return telephone calls Wednesday afternoon.

Voice of OC reviewed state-required conflict of interest statements for 2009 for the five members of the Huntington Beach City School District Board of Trustees plus the reports of Superintendent Kathy Kessler and Assistant Superintendent Jon Archibald, who handled the solar panel project, and found no gifts or entertainment from Chevron.

The 2010 reports are due in March but Kessler said she received “nothing” from Chevron, “not in 2010 or ever.” Archibald was with her during the telephone conversation and she asked him and he too said he hadn’t received anything.

School Trustee Celia Jaffe said last week the district went with Chevron because the $8 million Huntington Beach contract has no possibility of cost overruns and guarantees energy savings. It’s expected to save the district $15 million over the life of the project.

The Protest

Meanwhile, at Dwyer Middle School, students have been waving signs and banners before class this week ahead of the larger protest planned for Thursday.

At the heart of the Dwyer controversy is a miscommunication among school officials and parents. School officials say parents were inadvertently were left out of discussions regarding the placement of the panels.

The gulf has widened in the past several weeks, especially after a special board meeting during which officials declined to move the panels to another area, citing cost issues.

Rumors and suspicions have swirled on both sides.

In the middle is Huntington Beach Police Chief Kenneth Small, who said he supported the students right to learn how to protest but also must enforce no trespassing laws if the district asks him to.

The solar panels, he said, “obviously are going to change the character of the campus, so I do understand their concerns.”

“I don’t know anybody-them (school officials) or us (police)-who views the students as the enemy at all,” Small said.

In any case, he said, “I don’t really see it (the protest) as a problem at all.”

Kessler said she sent an automated telephone call to all Dwyer parents this week telling them the planned protest was “not approved, authorized or supported” by the school district. She said she let parents know there would be no school supervision.

“We have great liability concerns,” she said. “I’m going to count on people to do the right thing.”

Kessler said she was particularly concerned about children hurting themselves on school grounds after dark.

Parents were advised a week ago, she said, to get a permit to use the school facilities, including proof if liability insurance. As of late Wednesday, she said, the district received a partially completed permit application with no proof of liability insurance.

Asked what the district planned to do if students followed through with plans for an all-night protest on the school’s grass area near the solar panel site, Kessler said “to say something we’re going to do or not do at this time, we have to see what the situation is.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Huntington Beach City School District Trustee Celia Jaffe. We regret the error.

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