Schools could once again exceed revenue limits for energy efficiency

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The 20 solar panels at Prairie du Chien High School produce “green” electricity that saves the district $8,000-$10,000 per year. (Photo by Ted Pennekamp)

 

By Ted Pennekamp

 

The Wisconsin Legislature has been reviewing a bill that would once again allow school districts to exceed the revenue limit without a referendum for energy efficiency projects. Assembly Bill 553 would reverse a line-item veto in the 2017-2019 state budget in which then Governor Scott Walker instituted a 1,000-year moratorium on the practice.

From the 2009-2010 school year until Walker’s moratorium, several school districts in Southwest Wisconsin were able to exceed their revenue limits for various energy efficiency projects. Statewide, energy efficiency projects have paid for everything from solar panels and weather stripping to new boilers and air-conditioning.

Prairie du Chien, for example, constructed 20 solar panels near its football field in 2012 in order to produce “green” electricity. The solar panels were erected by DH Solar of Prairie du Chien and save the district between $8,000 and $10,000 per year in electricity cost. The panels serve Prairie du Chien High School, Bluff View Intermediate School and B.A. Kennedy Elementary School. The project was completed at a cost of $560,000.

Filling in the central courtyard at the high school, completed in 2015, corrected the issue of a tiny lunchroom but also made the school more energy efficient because numerous large windows were no longer exposed to the cold. The courtyard project cost $257,740.

Prairie du Chien District Administrator Bryce Bird said he spoke in favor of the bill a few weeks ago at the state Capitol.

“It’s another option that we could have to meet our needs with our aging facilities,” said Bird. Prairie du Chien does not have any specific energy efficiency projects planned for the near future, he noted, but the district always monitors its roofs, heating and cooling systems and lighting.

Bird said the bill has specific language by which energy efficiency projects at school districts will have much more oversight by the state than the previous energy efficiency/revenue cap exemption law. Accountability measures include new reporting and auditing requirements, definitions of eligible projects and term limits for debt issued to finance the project.

Exceeding the revenue limit for an energy efficiency project would allow for a district to undertake the project without taking money out of the general fund. Therefore, no programs would be in danger of being cut because of the cost of the project, Bird noted.

School boards must hold a public hearing at least 30 days before they are to vote on a project.

In addition, Bird said that if members of the public don’t like such a project, they would have 30 days to submit a community petition for a referendum before the exemption is granted.

Several school districts in Southwest Wisconsin used the energy efficiency exemption between December of 2010 and Jan. 1, 2018 when the prohibition took effect, including Prairie du Chien, Mineral Point, Shullsburg, Potosi and River Ridge.

River Ridge used the exemption for electrical upgrade projects, said District Administrator Clay Koenig, who noted that he would be in favor of having such an exemption once again.

“It’s a very good option for school districts to have to get the items they need to run efficiently,” said Koenig.

Seneca School District didn’t need to use the energy efficiency exemption back when it was in effect, but District Administrator David Boland said it would be good if proposed Bill 553 were to pass.

“While our district has never needed to exceed the revenue cap for energy efficiency projects, the proposed bill to allow schools the flexibility to do so is good for schools and our rural communities,” said Boland.

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