With a $1,000 prize on the line, a group of Hellgate High School students detailed for Lt. Gov. Angela McLean their plans to win the state’s SMART Schools challenge – one presented by the governor’s office to promote energy efficiency and conservation.

McLean, a former Anaconda teacher who appeared at home in the classroom setting Wednesday, praised the students for their early efforts and challenged them to think outside the box when it comes to their future.

“What you’ve done here today matters,” she told the class. “Your leadership is extraordinary. It’s something to be celebrated.”

The group of 30 students – each a member of Students Against Violating the Environment – gave up their lunch hour to brainstorm ways to reduce waste and make Hellgate more energy efficient.

The top 12 Montana schools that enter the challenge will win $1,000 and become eligible for an energy audit valued at $20,000. Grants and scholarships are also up for grabs.

With that challenge in mind, recycling remains high on Hellgate’s list, along with a “Trashion Show” planned for later this year. The SAVE students will also harvest their rooftop garden next week and prepare a celebratory salsa for their peers.

“We grow our own ingredients for salsa,” SAVE president Audrey Stanton told McLean. “We want to share with the community more about local gardening, and we’re trying to make it a community event.”

McLean explained the governor’s SMART Schools challenge as an effort to make government more effective by cutting costs. Saving money through energy improvements, reducing waste and boosting innovation will benefit schools in the long run, and save taxpayers’ money.

“You can save energy, save money and use that money for things that really matter, like creating opportunities for you and you’re fellow students,” McLean said. “That will translate to cost savings for you and your administrators so they can make those critical investments on your behalf.”

Selling that message to students isn’t always easy, the big picture being what it is. But McLean said schools across the country spend $6 billion each year to keep the lights on and the classrooms heated.

High schools in Montana are no different, and students in Missoula rely on bake sales to pay for some needed items and to cover the cost of field trips.

“We’d like to weigh all food waste we have right now and start composting for the SMART Schools challenge,” said Kara Hogan, the group’s vice president. “We’d like to try and sell the compost for SAVE.”

With Hellgate Principal Lisa Hendrix looking on, along with math teacher Lee Brown who oversees the SAVE program at the school, McLean urged students to encourage their friends to join the cause.

“We’re excited about SMART Schools and where your efforts in the initiative will take you,” McLean said. “In the end, we can report to the taxpayers that, thanks to you and students like you across the state of Montana, we have saved taxpayers thousands of dollars, and schools have been able to make smart, strategic investments that really matter.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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