How solar panels are helping leaders put energy into teacher pay

Sheridan Community Schools has redirected about $1.3 million toward salaries each year since the Indiana district shifted to solar energy.

With teacher shortages plaguing districts across the nation, solar savings at Sheridan Community Schools in Indiana are freeing up funds for wage increases. Since the solar panels went online about seven years ago and the district locked in its annual energy rate, it has redirected about $1.3 million each year toward teacher salaries, Superintendent David Mundy says.

Sheridan Community Schools also faces additional hiring pressures from larger, surrounding districts that have more financial resources for staffing. “The money we would have paid on our electrical bill, we’ve paid to teachers,” Mundy says. “It has allowed us to stay very competitive in this difficult hiring market. It has also improved our overall climate and culture—good climate and culture comes with being able to pay people.”

Sheridan is the only Indiana district that runs completely on solar panels, and Mundy and his team are now developing a renewable energy course that will give students an opportunity to earn certifications in solar power and similar technologies.

The solar project also sent the message to one of the most critical sectors of the community—local farmers—that the district is committed to environmental stewardship.

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“The farming community has been very supportive of us, and this is a way to show that we care, too,” Mundy explains. “This is a long-range project that will have an appreciable impact at least through the 2040s, if not beyond.”

Solar savings in a struggling district

Pottsville Area School District in Pennsylvania installed 3,500 solar panels on its elementary and middle schools. Superintendent Sarah E. Yoder shared the data showing how the district offset about 44% of its energy costs in its first year of solar power (Nov. 1, 2020-Oct. 31, 2021):

Actual net electric bill with solar power:

  • Expenses
    • Annual bills paid to power utility: $179,445
    • Payments under solar contract: $171,417
  • Revenues
    • Solar Renewable Energy Credits – $55,170
    • Payment for excess production from utility company: $2,825

Actual Net Electric Bill: $292,867

If the district did not have solar power:

  • District’s annual energy usage: 3,880,931kWh
  • Energy supply cost: Usage (above) multiplied by $0.0621/kWh = $241,154
  • Historical distribution cost: Usage (above) multiplied by $0.016/kWh = $62,095

Bill if the district did not have solar power: $303,249

The locked-in rate for solar power has served as a hedge against energy inflation that has driven the region’s costs up more than 90% over the last two years, Yoder says. Energy savings are critical for a school system that ranks among the districts in Pennsylvania with the lowest funding. This is why the district has committed to keeping the community informed by hosting periodic public meetings about the solar panels and sharing revenue, usage and generation data.

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“We are a struggling school district financially,” Yoder explains. “Initially there was definitely some resistance but now that we are showing the financial savings, I believe we will continue to see increased community support.”

In case of emergencies

Solar panels are key to the disaster plan at Santa Barbara USD in Southern California. The region has been hit by wildfires and mudslides in recent years, and solar panels allow the schools to serve as shelters if there are widespread power outages. The panels could also provide power to the community, Superintendent Hilda Maldonado says. “We could become the hub of the community then,” she says.

The district has installed 14 solar panels and is paying a flat rate for the next 28 years. The panels are now providing 98% of the district’s power and leaders hope to hit 100% after the lighting in its high school is replaced with LED fixtures.

During a power outage, the panels would keep district refrigerators and freezers, and HVAC and communications systems up and running. Still, some in the district had some concerns that installing solar canopies over district green spaces would harm the scenery.

“Turns out they provide some really nice shade for a soccer field,” Maldonado says. “We’re now looking at building stands so people can watch the games in the shade.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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