I-Team follows up with Sonoma school solar project

September 20, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
It is a year behind schedule and $1 million over budget, but the Sonoma County schools' solar program is finally up and running. The I-Team has been tracking all the problems along the way and here is the update.

Through public records, we now have a fascinating look at how the district responded to our questions -- by getting training from a public relations firm to try and shape the message you hear.

"I feel great. It's nice to finally get them going and do what we said we were going to do," said Justin Frese, the deputy superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

The deputy superintendent in charge of Sonoma Valley Unified's solar program might feel good now, but it's been a long painful road.

For much of the past year, the district dodged questions about delays and cost overruns. We tried to speak with Sonoma Valley Unified school board member Gary Desmet on March 21, 2012.

Noyes: Can you at least stand still for a second?
Desmet: No.
Noyes: Why is it so hard for you to answer a question?
Desmet: I don't know why you are pushing so hard.
Noyes: When people are evasive with me, I push. And you won't answer a basic question?
Desmet: Uh, superintendent?

After that encounter, Desmet asked for permission to grant us an interview, but the PR firm hired to handle us shot him down saying, "Requesting an interview with an investigative unit is akin to dousing a smoldering fire with kerosene. Period."

The public records obtained by the I-Team show how the PR team struggles with what they call "?a critical element to ABC's questions that we still can't answer. Roebbelen [the contractor on the $10 million project] has not delivered on their promises and has failed on all of their deadlines."

When asked why the solar wasn't working, Frese glossed over the problems back in March, but now he is finally ready to concede the issue.

Noyes: You basically trusted them to have their act together and they didn't.
Frese: That's right.

In fact, one email Frese sent to the construction company says, "This lack of due diligence has resulted in damage to district property, installations of structures in the wrong locations, and in some instances putting students safety at risk," because of all the delays.

"The general nature of having construction on a school site while it's active is inherently more dangerous than getting it done in the summer, like we had intended them to do initially," said Frese.

More than 7,700 solar panels installed at several schools are supposed to save the district $1 million a year. You can't argue with that, but the neighbors do not like the way the project was handled. By law, the district had to inform the neighbors about the plans. How'd they do it? By taking out ads in the local paper on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, when readership is known to be low.

"Starting from the very beginning, there was absolutely no notification that this was going to happen," said neighbor Anne Phillips.

The neighbors were furious when the solar panels popped up, blocking their view across Sonoma Valley. The solar panels were tall and very visible across the street from Phillips' house, but after the I-Team took her complaints to the district, they lowered the panels.

"I don't think it would have happened if Channel 7 had not gotten involved. I absolutely do not think it would've happened," said Phillips.

"My biggest concern is that the pond will not be able to hold the water during a rain," said neighbor Tim Simonson.

Neighbors near Adele Harrison Middle School still worry about flooding because the district put solar panels over a holding pond.

"The cement has displaced so much of the dirt in the holding pond that when it starts raining, we still think we're going to have flooding," said neighbor Nancie Ligon.

"We brought in an engineer and surveyed the property and ensured that it was not going to affect how the area drained," said Frese.

There's not a lot of trust between the district and neighbors as a result of this process. By the way, the construction company refused to comment and the architect on the project paid for the PR firm. They wouldn't tell us why they did it or how much they spent, but here's some free PR advice from the I-Team -- it's always better to tell the truth up front, express a desire to make things right and to mean it and follow up.

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