Making the Finances of Green Schools Work in Minnesota

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Safeguarding the environment for future generations is a laudable goal, but when you’re managing a fast-growing school district’s bottom line, you need to also know that trying to do this makes financial sense. In the Waconia Public School system we’ve learned that going green can be the fiscally prudent path. Providing safe, healthy and sustainable learning spaces does not have to be an expensive choice, but it does require collaboration, creative problem solving, and a shared vision to do what is right for students, staff, community and the planet.

At Waconia Public Schools, we approach resource conservation, environmental education, and wellness with innovative and cost-effective solutions. Our Director of Finance and Operations worked with our school board to approve a financing plan that allows us to use conservation cost savings, energy rebates and other incentives to pay for additional environmental and energy conservation improvements. The Waconia School District qualified for $46,000 in energy rebates, and we’re saving an estimated $117,000 in utility and operations costs annually as a direct result of these improvements. Our district also saves over 1.2 million gallons of water, nearly one million kilowatt hours of electricity, and over 17,000 therms of gas annually.

Waconia Public Schools approaches resource conservation, environmental education, and wellness with innovative and cost-effective solutions. (Photo credit: Waconia Public Schools)

Waconia Public Schools approaches resource conservation, environmental education, and wellness with innovative and cost-effective solutions. (Photo credit: Waconia Public Schools)

The success of our conservation initiatives relies not only on smart financing, but on sophisticated monitoring equipment, on careful analysis of resource use, and on always keeping an open mind about lower environmental impact solutions. Our district began by getting a handle on its resource use through auditing, analyzing, and monitoring usage among all of its facilities. We work closely with environmental engineers at B3 Benchmarking to improve conservation and efficient use of resources. We identify opportunities to save money on utility costs by re-tuning existing equipment and installing resource-efficient equipment.

We also actively engage in partnerships to create efficiency in scale and help secure alternative funding. For example, we recently partnered with the City of Waconia and Carver County to secure a grant from the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources to install a water reuse system to capture untreated storm water and reduce pollutants entering Burandt Lake adjacent to Bayview Elementary. This project combined with other water quality initiatives will result in Burandt Lake being “delisted” from the State Impaired Waters list within 5 years. The collected water is also used to irrigate our nearby athletic fields.

Our most recent collaborative project is with Minnesota Department of Commerce, Xcel Energy, JJR Power, and Innovative Power Systems to install solar panels on our high school gymnasium. These solar panels will produce 50,000 kilowatt-hours of energy – or about 5% of total annual energy usage at Waconia High School – without costing the district a dime for their installation. JJR Power will provide the capital to install the system. It is financed through a combination of the “Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program,” Federal tax credit, MACRS depreciation and the execution of a 15-year Power Purchase Agreement.

These are just a few of the partnerships that are helping Waconia Public Schools to develop, improve and sustain programs that reduce environmental impact, promote health, and equip students with a solid foundation of environmental literacy. At Waconia, it’s about being good stewards of all our resources, both financial and environmental. For a school district wishing to save money, environmental conservation simply makes fiscal sense.

Richard Scott is Director of Grants & Development at Waconia Public Schools.