Solar arrays at Denver Public Schools open taxpayers to millions in liability

District apologizes to neighborhood

DENVER - Solar arrays meant to save Denver Public Schools money on its energy bills expose taxpayers to millions of dollars in liability, a CALL7 investigation has found.

The panels, operating in a private-public partnership at 28 schools, are intended to save the district at least $941,000 over 20 years, according to initial estimates. But contracts, approved as early as 2009, indicate that if the district backs out of any of the schools, developers will be paid a substantial termination fee.

For all the schools combined, the termination fees would be roughly $15 million.

At one school, Place Bridge Academy, it would cost as much as $1.9 million if the school decided to back out of a controversial project, which has riled the Lynwood neighborhood in southeast Denver. The project, completed in recent weeks, has been highly contentious because neighbors were not given a chance to say whether they support it.

Solar arrays were slated to be placed on the roofs of schools. But one of the two arrays at Place Bridge were placed on a vacant lot near homes instead. Crews appeared without warning one day in September, surprising neighbors when they began installing solar panels.

"It was just dropped right in the middle of our lap without any warning," said Joe Babish, whose backyard sits right next to the site.

Following an outpouring of complaints from neighbors, including a petition expressing outrage, DPS administrators began on Oct. 1 the "process of involving community residents" with an onsite walk-around, according to district documents.

But according to other documents obtained by CALL7 Investigators under the Colorado Open Records Act, the district had already signed a contract for the solar array in August -- two months before any effort to involve the public.

Jeanne Kaplan, a member of DPS's board, said the district let neighbors down.

"There have been people on DPS who have said, 'Act now, ask for forgiveness later,'" Kaplan said.

CALL7 Investigator Theresa Marchetta asked Kaplan: "You've heard those words?"

"I've heard those words," Kaplan said.

When Kaplan attempted to advocate for her constituents during a raucous DPS meeting, board President Mary Seawell silenced her.

"I'm done tonight with beating up the district," Seawell told Kaplan, changing the subject.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg and other officials declined to appear on camera for an interview. Instead, the district made spokesman Mike Vaughn available for a 30-minute interview in which he apologized for not involving residents sooner.

"We immediately recognized that we had work to do, that we had made a mistake that we needed to apologize," he said.

Vaughn left the interview after 30 minutes, refusing to answer further questions.

DPS made one concession to neighbors: Changing the alignment of the solar panels on the lot.

But that hasn't ended neighbors' frustrations. They worry that because the lot sits on a former landfill the array could be a safety hazard.

DPS administrators have repeated assurances that the site is safe. Yet neighbors were stunned to learn in November that crews encountered asbestos on the lot, forcing DPS to issue public warnings online. The district eventually wound up paying more than $13,000 in cleanup fees.

The city of Denver's Department of Environmental Health assessed the lot nearly a decade ago. A June 1, 2004, report found methane gas concentrations high enough to be potentially explosive. The report warned that "appropriate precautions be taken prior to any excavation, along with monitoring, during any excavation activities."

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