Standing in the shadow of a large coal-fired power plant, Batesville, Arkansas, might not be the first place you’d expect to pioneer renewable energy, but through a partnership with local energy efficiency company, Entegrity Energy, Batesville Highschool went from paying energy bills to receiving dollar bills. The best part is, they are investing that extra money into bonuses for all of their teachers. Thanks to the energy savings and revenue generated by their solar installations, Batesville is raising teacher’s salaries. Once the second-lowest paying school district in the state, Batesville, whose mascot just happens to be The Pioneer, is now one of the highest paying, and students and teachers are feeling the benefit.
During an energy audit in 2017, Entegrity discovered that the Batesville school district, comprising Batesville Highschool and 5 other schools, spent over $600,000 annually on their utility bill. The district, with just over 3,200 students, struggled to pay this staggering figure and operated on a slim budget just to stay open. This meant the district had a hard time retaining teachers, so the district began looking for a comprehensive solution to its energy problem. In addition to switching to energy-efficient lights, updating the windows, and improving HVAC systems, the district installed over 1,400 solar panels to reduce the district’s energy consumption. These improvements and solar panels, which line the Batesville Highschool’s bus canopy and fill an unused sports field, reduced the district’s energy consumption by 1,600 MegaWatts in three years. More importantly, the school district’s $250,000 budget deficit has grown into a $1.2 million surplus, and they’ve used that money to increase teacher’s salaries for two years in a row.
“Let’s use that money to start pumping up teachers’ salaries,” Michael Hester, Batesville Superintendent, said in an interview with Energy News. “It’s the way we’re going to attract and retain staff. And it’s the way we’re going to attract and retain students in this day and age of school choice.” The pay raises generally fall between $2,000 and $3,000 per educator, but in some cases go as high as $15,000. Batesville schools are now the highest paying of the five local Northern Arkansas districts. “We have school choice in the state of Arkansas, so that meant not only could our students choose to go to a different campus but also our teachers, so by improving the pay raise in our area, it attracted and is retaining those teachers, giving our students the best education,” Megan Renihan of the Batesville School District told The Denver Channel.
The community is quickly warming up to the idea of solar panels lining their rooftops and filling their unused fields. “Batesville is quickly becoming the capital of solar in Arkansas with the hospital, city, and several private companies pursuing solar installations now.” Rick Vance of Entegrity Energy shared with The Business Download. “Even the surrounding communities and school districts are following Batesville school district’s lead and implementing their own solar projects. It’s been exciting to see this area of Arkansas embrace such a great opportunity.”
Many Batesville teachers like Jeanne Roepcke were working second jobs just to cover their expenses, and thanks to these solar panels, they’ve been able to reduce the number of hours they work outside of school and even quit their second jobs. “I feel like, you know, I’m a better teacher. I’m fresher and more energetic,” Roepcke said in that same Denver Channel interview. “It’s wonderful to have this new initiative and make more money, but honestly, I would have been here anyway because this is where I want to be. This is where my heart is. The students are what makes it so important to me.” Batesville is currently building a curriculum around renewable energy, and they hope to teach their students about how thinking green can result in more green for teachers across the country. With over 73,000 schools across the nation capturing solar power, it might be safe to say that the nation is learning its lesson.