JACKSON — Yazoo County School District Superintendent Becky Fischer said the lights in the high school in her district were so old, they could not even find bulbs for them when they went out. Electric equipment, decades old, fell repeatedly, meaning constant maintenance and repair for the district’s schools in a county where 36.2 percent of citizens live in poverty, 2010-2014 U.S. Census data show.

So this past February, the Yazoo County School District made a $4.2-million deal with Schneider Electric, a global company that specializes in automation and energy, to make its schools “greener” in savings and in energy consumption with an Energy Savings Performance Contract.

The U.S. Department of Energy describes the strategy as a way to “pay for today’s facility upgrades with tomorrow’s energy savings.” With a projected 26-percent reduction in the district’s utility budget, the school will realize $2.5 million in savings in energy expenses over the 20-year course of the project, or $92,000 a year, Marcus Craig, the southeastern regional director for Schneider Electric, says.

Dr. Tom Taylor, assistant superintendent of the school district, said the local tax base raised taxes—for the first time in 12 years—by 4 percent in order to help fund the project.

“Schneider had tried to get into the Yazoo County District approximately five to six years ago, and the Board was not interested,” Fischer told the Jackson Free Press.

The board was at first hesitant to spend so much money on the project until they saw the savings they would incur with Schneider. “We took our concerns to our school board and told them the opportunity we had with Schneider. There’s no way to go wrong. They guarantee an energy savings, or they will pay us. It’s a win-win. They were very excited, and after many meetings, we decided to go with them,” Fischer added.

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The partnership between the two is important, both the district’s superintendents and Craig said. With budget cuts ahead for school districts and increasing maintenance costs a guaranteed hazard for outdated equipment, the rural district has taken steps toward a stitch in time that would not only save money, but make their schools better and safer for students.

“We feel once this project begins to take shape, our people will not only ask for continued improvement, but will demand that we continue to give our students and our faculty and our community the best that we have to offer,” Taylor said.

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Repairs in Order

The replacements will prove to be sweeping improvements for the school district, which is currently dealing with 25-year-old dilapidated equipment that was constantly breaking down and incurring high maintenance costs, Craig says.

“We needed the school to be something to be what the families, the kids and the staff could be proud of.” –Becky Fischer, Yazoo County School District

Schneider’s improvements for the school include replacing the chiller system with a VRF air-conditioning system. Their schools will enjoy the more energy-efficient individual room-by-room controls that would make classrooms more comfortable.

The company has replaced the boiler system at the high school and junior high, replaced the HVAC package unit and installed a centralized control system that could automate control for each school in the district. Craig says Schneider did interior lighting at the high school and junior high and upgraded fixtures to reduce water consumption. The LED exterior lighting installed at the high school would help improve safety at school.

Ryan Colker, presidential adviser at the National Institute of Building Sciences, says the impact of better facilities can be measured in several different ways, from test scores to student health to classroom attendance, to just helping reduce teacher stress.

“If you can improve the space in a classroom, it really sets up the opportunities to have students to focus on what’s being taught rather than distractions related to poor lighting or poor sound in the hopes of advancing achievement,” Colker said.

Funding Woes

Colker says another way better buildings affect student performance is the potential to put school funds back into classrooms. “If you have a well-functioning building, you can reduce the costs of capital improvements and other things that would divert funds from the educational mission of the classroom, like textbooks or teacher salaries or additional classroom equipment rather than focusing on the building components,” he said.

Taylor says a continued lack of funding over the last several years from the Mississippi Legislature means that his district has had to defer necessary long-term maintenance and construction costs for temporary fixes. But now, he says, with the Schneider plan, the district plans to have the project paid for in 15 years, but expects its impact to go on way past that period.

“We have an educational environment of rising costs, including underfunding or shrinking budgets,” Craig said. “What we helped Yazoo County schools do is help them tap a resource, an energy expense. Most folks consider it a liability, but we made it an asset. If you can take an energy-efficiency project and drive savings, thereby reducing utility expenses and reducing maintenance costs, what you’ve done is created a new revenue stream for a school.”

Fischer and Taylor say that they and all of the community stakeholders were thrilled about the project, whose initial repairs began on April 6. “We needed the school to be something to be what the families, the kids and the staff could be proud of,” Fischer said.

Related: “Education costs money,” says state superintendent in Mississippi

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Sierra Mannie is an education reporting fellow for the Jackson Free Press and The Hechinger Report. Read more at jfp.ms/education.