Solar Panels Provide Solution to Low State Education Funding Issues

Published: Jan. 22, 2016 at 6:02 PM CST
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A school district is taking Iowa's problem of low educational funding or Supplemental State Aid into its own hands.

The Bennett Community School District has found an innovative way to reduce expenses by slashing its electricity and heating budgets.

The small Pre-K through sixth grade district is found all in one building in Cedar County.

If you didn't know what to look for, you might not even realize big changes are happening within the small district. Crews have installed solar panels on a majority of the roof on the district building.

"I think the school board has a lot of foresight. They say ‘okay, State of Iowa, you are going to short us some money, this is what we are going to do’,” said Bennett Community School Business Manager Lonna Moeller.

The school district is already gearing up for a second phase of the solar panel project. The plan is to put more solar panels on ground near the playground in the spring.

"We are going to keep going until we are 100 percent reliant on our solar production,” said Bennett Community School Superintendent Dave Larson.

The superintendent said this project is a direct result of a lack of state funding.

"I would say that the state has forced our hands. For smaller schools, we have one classroom per grade level. So, we are not like other schools that can increase class sizes [or] can have less teachers to offset their expenses,” Larson said.

The district has also installed new electric-run heating and cooling systems.

So far, the overall project has come with a price tag of close to half a million dollars.

“Luckily, here we have a large PPEL fund and a capital project fund because we don't build a lot here. So, we have these two other funds that are very healthy and a general fund unspent balance that is decreasing,” Larson said.

The goal is for this to solar panel project to save $50,000 to $60,000 each year within that general fund.

In the end, however, this project means much more than a savings to many.

"(It means) that we'll have a school here. That's really what it comes down to,” Larson said.

"We want to stay open, and we want to be here for the kids,” Moeller said.

The district started using the solar panels on the roof this past summer. Those collected enough solar energy to fully power the school until last month, when temperatures dropped. Once phase two is finished, all of the solar panels are expected to pretty much cover all of school's electricity needs.