WILBRAHAM, Mass. — For nearly a year and a half, a Massachusetts high school has been lit up around the clock because the district can’t turn off the roughly 7,000 lights in the sprawling building.
The lighting system was installed at Minnechaug Regional High School when it was built over a decade ago and was intended to save money and energy. But ever since the software that runs it failed on Aug. 24, 2021, the lights in the Springfield suburbs school have been on continuously, costing taxpayers a small fortune.
“We are very much aware this is costing taxpayers a significant amount of money,” Aaron Osborne, the assistant superintendent of finance at the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District, told NBC News. “And we have been doing everything we can to get this problem solved.”
Osborne said it’s difficult to say how much money it's costing because during the pandemic and in its aftermath, energy costs have fluctuated wildly.
“I would say the net impact is in the thousands of dollars per month on average, but not in the tens of thousands,” Osborne said.
That, in part, is because the high school uses highly efficient fluorescent and LED bulbs, he said. And, when possible, teachers have manually removed bulbs from fixtures in classrooms while staffers have shut off breakers not connected to the main system to douse some of the exterior lights.
Still, having the lights on at Minnechaug all the time is a conspicuous waste of taxpayer money, Wilbraham’s town selectmen said in an Aug. 8, 2022, letter to the members of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District.
“The image it projects is one of profligacy in a time when many families in the communities the District serves are struggling with their own energy costs,” they wrote.
But there’s hope on the horizon that the lights at Minnechaug will soon be dimmed.
Paul Mustone, president of the Reflex Lighting Group, said the parts they need to replace the system at the school have finally arrived from the factory in China and they expect to do the installation over the February break.
“And yes, there will be a remote override switch so this won’t happen again,” said Mustone, whose company has been in business for more than 40 years.
Minnechaug is the only high school in its district and serves 1,200 students from the towns of Wilbraham and Hampden. The original high school building, which dates back to 1959, was replaced with the current 248,000-square foot structure in 2012.
One of the cost-saving measures the school board insisted on was a “green lighting system” run on software installed by a company called 5th Light to control the lights in the building. The system was designed to save energy — and thus save money — by automatically adjusting the lights as needed.
But in August 2021, staffers at the school noticed that the lights were not dimming in the daytime and burning brightly through the night.
“The lighting system went into default,” said Osborne. “And the default position for the lighting system is for the lights to be on.”
Osborne said they immediately reached out to the original installer of the system only to discover that the company had changed hands several times since the high school was built. When they finally tracked down the current owner of the company, Reflex Lighting, several more weeks went by before the company was able to find somebody familiar with the high school’s lighting system, he said.
In the meantime, Lilli DiGrande, who is now a 16-year-old junior and a co-editor of The Smoke Signal, the online high school newspaper, published an article on Nov. 3, 2021, with the headline “What’s Wrong With The Lights?”
“The teachers were complaining because they couldn’t dim the lights to show videos and movies on the whiteboard,” DiGrande told NBC News. “The teachers now try to get around it by unscrewing light bulbs. But the lights seem to be on everywhere in the school.”
Soon, Wilbraham’s town selectmen began hearing complaints from residents.
“The Board of Selectmen members have received, and continue to receive, complaints regarding the lights being left on at night at Minnechaug Regional High School,” they wrote in their Aug. 8, 2022, letter. “The lights that are being referred to are the classroom lights, not the outdoor lights. There is a significant amount of concern expressed by citizens that this is a waste of energy and, in turn, taxpayer dollars.”
The town leaders added that “this issue may be one of lesser cost or importance in the overall operation of the District, but it is, unfortunately, a visible one.”
Osborne, along with Schools Superintendent John Provost, assured the town leaders they had been working on the problem.
“After many weeks of effort, we were provided a rough estimate in excess of $1.2 Million to comparably replace the entire system,” Osborne and Provost wrote in an Aug. 26, 2022, response.
That estimate was from Reflex Lighting, Osborne told NBC News.
But with the pandemic raging, the contractor would not have been able to start doing the job until the following summer, Osborne said.
So Osborne and Provost, in their letter to town leaders, wrote that they hired a software consultant to see if it would be possible to “patch the system” to override the default system. And when that proved unworkable, they explored the possibility of having simple timers installed or even an on/off switch.
“This was eventually deemed not possible and the district moved on to looking at physical solutions that would retain some of the energy-saving intent of the original lighting management system,” Osborne and Provost wrote in their response.
Osborne said they had no choice but to go back to Reflex Lighting and, with the help of the company’s electrical engineers, they came up with what he described as a “piecemeal” approach to solving the problem by replacing the server, the lighting control boards and other hardware.
In November 2021, the parts were ordered and the repair job was supposed to start in February 2022.
But the replacement main server wasn’t delivered to Wilbraham until March 2022, which Osborne and Provost described in their letter to town leaders as “relatively on schedule.”
“It was very frustrating, but we were dealing with the pandemic and supply chain issues,” Osborne said.
Osborne and Provost also reported that “the remaining equipment has been back ordered multiple times” and the district was given a new delivery date of Oct. 14, 2022.
“While we are hopeful this will be met, we are of course skeptical,” they wrote. “So, for now, the lights are stuck on.”
It turned out they were right to be skeptical.
The Christmas 2022 season came and went and the replacement parts were not delivered and the lights remained on at Minnechaug.
“The final lighting system transition did not happen over break as expected because our vendor contacted us on the last day school was in session to reschedule the transition work,” Osborne said in a subsequent Jan. 3 letter to the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee. “This was surprising and disappointing to us: we had this date locked with Reflex since October.”
Now, Osborne said, “we’re not expecting them to come until February, but we are pushing to do it sooner.”
But he's confident that waiting it out was the right decision.
“We could have accepted the $1.2 million bid to rip the system out and start over right away, but I suspect we would find ourselves in the same position,” he said. “As I see it, there wasn’t an alternative.”
Mustone said the pandemic essentially shut down the factories in China that produce the components they need to do this kind of work. He said it’s a lot cheaper to build things over there, but lots of American companies like his are now paying the price.
“I have been doing this for 42 years and I have never seen this kind of supply chain disruption,” he said. “We made a deal with the devil by moving the factories to China.”