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Brightening Schools' Futures with Solar Innovation

The story behind the solar green initiative that raised teacher salaries in one public school district
Solar panels

When the school finances were looking dire, Superintendent Michael Hester of Batesville School District (BSD) in Arkansas, saw it as an opportunity to get creative. In an effort to overcome financial challenges, BSD turned to a solar energy initiative

The district utilized legislation (Act 464) to conduct an energy audit and redirect savings from solar and efficiency measures to cover costs. Within four years, teachers had a 30% increase to their base salary.

“We didn't really have resistance at the first because it was more just doubt whether the numbers match, if that would be delivered. Just disbelief that maybe what we were saying we were going to do and pursue could actually happen. Could we check all the boxes? Could we not only find the money, would those numbers be right? And then would we give the teachers the money?” Hester says. “Because you know how that goes. A lot of times you get your budget and things happen, and then you've got emergencies or crisis and things happen and it never gets to where you intended it to go.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Hester discusses the rapid implementation of the project and emphasizes the positive impact on education, the community, and student engagement with green initiatives.


JILL ANDERSON: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Michael Hester knows school green initiatives pay off and transcend what divides us. He's the superintendent of Batesville Public Schools in Batesville, Arkansas, where his district became first in the state to adopt solar energy and became a model nationwide. It started six years ago when he needed to save money in the budget and wanted to retain teachers. By reducing the district's footprint, installing a solar canopy at the campus entrance and solar panels in the district he was able to save enough to raise teacher salaries. Those same salaries now rank highest in the state. Only about one in 10 schools have invested in solar energy. I wanted to know how he managed to do this. First I asked him what makes going solar so challenging for many districts?  

MICHAEL HESTER: For me as a superintendent, the two most important things is do you have the legislation and your solar partner? Those are the foundational elements that you have to have because without the legislation that sets up all the financial side, that releases the hurdles of the bond issue, whether you can pay for it with your savings or have to go to the taxpayers and ask for a increase in taxes for fiscal improvement. Our legislation in Arkansas Act 464 is what originally started. It allowed us to have an energy audit and take the savings from our solar as well as just efficiencies, LED lights, high efficiency water outlets, sealing up the buildings, going with double pane windows versus single pane and just a lot of different things.  

It allowed us to take the savings to pay for the cost of installing all those efficiency things, those green initiatives, and so the legislation in Arkansas, which I think is pioneer and what we've recommended to everybody internationally, whether it's the UK, whether it's California, we just said, you've got to get that together, and Arkansas has one of the best legislative models that they can go with, and that made it possible then. And on top of it, we had a partner who came in and no one wants to step out there in education. Everybody will let you take a risk and be a pioneer, but if it cost you your career, if it costs the district money and it's a PR nightmare, then everybody's going, "Oh, see there, you shouldn't have done that." But if it comes through, then you look good and people are all happy about it.  

That's where your partner comes in. If you hook up with a solar partner who's not in business two years after you install and there's nobody there to help follow up on the maintenance or follow through, then you look like you made a foolish decision. These are some of the things that I would say that a board and a superintendent fear is do we have the pathway or the legislation to clear it on the finances and on the advantages to the district where we could use those savings. We took those savings and not only paid for the energy, but then we took the savings and we gave it to our teachers and their salaries. And because we check all those boxes, that's why people want to talk to us because it can be done, but there's a lot of cases where it gets messed up with either not enough legislation or the partnership let the district down, and now it looked like they made an unnecessary risk.  

What we're finding now, because we're into this then protecting that, once you show that savings, once you start taking money away from the energy industry, that you've carved out your niche with this much money in savings or this much money that you're getting reimbursed off the grid from your solar, there are stakeholders, there are people in energy, it's used to getting that money and that money is power and they want it back or they want pieces of it back. So when you're dealing with power on the legislative side, then there's a movement to undo the legislation. Or if they can't undo the legislation with the current legislators, get our people in office who will come after it or modify it. So once you've made commitments now to do these things, now you've got to worry about can you keep the legislation that keeps these things going and doesn't pull the rug out from underneath you once you've gotten out there.  

JILL ANDERSON: I want to start back at 2017, which is you came on board as a new superintendent and within the first year you're proposing going solar or something that costs millions and millions of dollars in a state that's known to be relatively conservative. What compelled you to do that?  

MICHAEL HESTER: You take risk when your back's up against the wall and you're looking for solutions. And in our district, we had gained several small districts around. They had closed them down because they got too small and so we've inherited three or four school districts, and what happens in that case is your footprint gets so big that then it starts to take you under. Fiscally, it starts to take you under because you're trying to manage so much. So we were looking for ways to find efficiencies and partnerships. We met with our board and we talked about how that we were being pulled under. We couldn't give our teachers raises because we were so committed to all these campuses and we were just too big. The footprint was too big. So we said, let's make a commitment to find partnerships to help us with this and find efficiencies. So we began reducing the footprint, meaning giving other campuses back to either governments or towns, cities.  

And then we came to the energy efficiency talk and we were able to get an energy audit from Integrity. And again, this was through our legislation. They'll do legislation said that you can get an energy audit and they'll help you take care of updating your efficiencies, whether that's your lights, windows, water fixtures and so forth, and that would help your bottom line on your energy. And so we also knew that we were behind on paying teachers, so we said, let's go for it and we will commit to the teachers that the money we save, we would give to their salaries. Now when we're building solar panels out front, it was hard for teachers to understand what that meant for money for their pockets, but they do now as it came through. We are the oldest town in Arkansas that's an existing town today, and with that we have old facilities.  

So we really had to do some innovating and pioneering things. We were willing to take some risks because the option was we weren't getting anywhere. Our budget was going nowhere. The board didn't have any leverage with any money to do anything like pay teachers or do other innovative things. And so we were trying to find ways to create space inside our budget that we already had. So out of desperation comes innovation, and again, credit to my board. A lot of boards will just say, let's don't take the risk. They were saying, let's go for it.  

JILL ANDERSON: So this wasn't a case of you were coming in as a new superintendent with some passion for climate change. You weren't coming in to the district with the mindset, let's do solar energy. It was really when you looked at the numbers, it started to make sense.  

MICHAEL HESTER: Yes. This came about when we met as a board sitting down going, let's create a strategic plan for at least the next five years and let's pursue it. Efficiencies and partnerships were how we knew we could get there. With the efficiencies we create budget and with partnerships we go outside of our budget and find resources that brings it back into the district.  

JILL ANDERSON: Did you have any resistance to this?  

MICHAEL HESTER: We didn't really have resistance at the first because it was more just doubt whether how the numbers match, if that would be delivered. Just disbelief that maybe what we were saying we were going to do and pursue could actually happen. Could we check all the boxes? Could we not only find the money, would those numbers be right? And then would we give the teachers the money? Because you know how that goes. A lot of times you get your budget and things happen, and then you've got emergencies or crisis and things happen and it never gets to where you intended it to go. So once we started showing the teachers the money, within four years they had a $10,000 increase to base, which at that time was only 31,000. So by the time we got them up to 41,000, they had had a 30% increase to their base in four years. Then they believed us because we had credibility in that we said what we were going to do and we did it. We walked the walk.  

JILL ANDERSON: And one of the other things so interesting about this project is how quickly you were able to make it happen.  

MICHAEL HESTER:  Oh yeah. They were up by August, so it was within eight months.  


MICHAEL HESTER: We were the pioneers in this effort. We were the largest efficiency project and we were the first solar project. 

JILL ANDERSON: What advice do you have for finding a partner?  

MICHAEL HESTER: You've got to research your own state and your own region, and in our case, Integrity was a part of a bigger construction company, so we knew they had the backing and they had the personnel that were in it for the long game. When you interview who you're going to do that with, you've just got to do your research on who you think will be either fly the night or who will be around to ensure you've got a 20-year plan, are you confident that this partner will be there? So here's the beauty of it. We wanted our kids every day when they walk underneath it to see that solar panel, to see the technology, and hopefully ignite the creativity in their own mind about the way they think about things in the future because they'll do more with green energy than any of us could ever imagine.  

MICHAEL HESTER: Like we've had schools come in and the kids they bring are engineering students and things like this, and they want to investigate what we're doing, and we have our solar engineers from our partner there and the conversations they have about solar panels and what's going on, I just sit back and just go, "Oh my goodness." We have solar lab kits that we take to the classroom. We have the field trips to our field array, and then we have other schools who come in and then we talk about ways to manage the land around the solar panel. We use the pollenization from honeybees because we're close to the White River and our neighbors are using sheep. I don't recommend anybody use goats because they'll eat your wires. And the sheep, they keep it mowed for them around the solar panels. And so there's just all kinds of solution things that you bring into it that's holistic and it just makes it fun.  

So now we get people in the mode of, well, what other efficiencies are in my life? Whether it's being as conservative with your footprint, conserving energy, conserving, and passing it on to another generation or partnerships, how can other people help us get what we need and we partner with them? And that kind of creativity is, I think the best thing for our district has been we have tens of millions of dollars now in our budget from the partnership idea when we started just who can help us with this, who would be a part of this with us? It opens you up to we're sitting here, there's so many more resources that we don't have to go to the taxpayers and we can do everything we can with our budget to make it go as far as we can. And then there are partners waiting to help us because they want to be involved with touching the future and preparing our kids, empowering them for the future. And those partners then help you get what you need, and then their strengths are brought into your organization and both of you flourish together.  

JILL ANDERSON: It's really amazing to hear how this has kind of taken on a life of its own and just changed the district.  


JILL ANDERSON: And you have students coming and learning about solar energy and you have your own students learning about all these green initiatives, and it's just kind of grown. How did you get the buy-in from legislators to actually change a law and move this forward?  

MICHAEL HESTER: Our public service commission, they stand as almost the judge and jury between industry and legislation. They regulate the language that goes into the legislation. We had excellent leadership in our public service commission, and there was some battles fought there. They held up and not only they held up, but they had this vision that this is what could be done in our state and for our nonprofits to make budgets and green initiatives go further.  

JILL ANDERSON: How have you managed to keep that commitment to putting the money back to the teachers?  

MICHAEL HESTER: It starts with my board because my board has the heart for the teachers. We have a motto here that says students first. To put students first it begins with the teachers, the people who you put those kids with every day, that's how you put students first is the quality of people that we attract and retain. And so my board understands that. The second thing is is when you've got a superintendent and a district office where we've all been the teachers and the coaches, and we've all juggled bills and we've all starved our family to work on our master's degree when we could have been working a second or third job. And so we understand the struggle because we've come through the ranks. I've seen all the great teachers leave the profession because they couldn't be the breadwinner or they had bigger opportunities to take care of their family.  

Whenever you get a chance in the leadership to do something for your teachers personally, we needed somebody sitting in these positions when we were teachers to be doing that, and we wanted to be faithful to that when we had these leadership roles saying, as you know, with the national teacher shortage and with all the issues we're facing in education to attract and retain, Lord knows we need everything pulling that way, whether it's the board, our leadership, and everyone else in public to understand the importance and plight of public education. And here in Arkansas, the model on the license plate here is a natural state. So there're beautiful hills and rivers and lakes that we have. We have some of the cleanest rivers and lakes in the world. So when we talked about using green energy for us, whether it's a red state or blue state, whatever, everybody can agree they want clean water and air, and everybody's proud of their heritage of their land and what it means, and everybody wants to pass along to their kids.  

So when we put the solar panels up, all weekend we'd have vans and cars loads of senior citizens coming through, and number one, they were so appreciative that we were using green initiatives because when you get to be a grandparent, you want to see that the next generation's taken care of. So I think there was a legacy that they were glad to see being passed on, but also in a conservative state, they want to know, are you maximizing the budget and the tax dollars that you have? And so when they look up there and go, "No, they didn't even raise taxes for that." They found legislation that paid for itself and the savings they created to get teachers raises and to purchase these things. So on that side of it, we made all the Conservatives happy and all the Liberals were happy with all the green initiatives, but I think everybody could understand and appreciate it all. So we just try to take a holistic approach to how we are being conservative with either the resources or with the green initiatives that we all want to leave a legacy for.  

JILL ANDERSON: Well, it's really amazing, and I hope you're able to inspire others to take some similar steps in their school districts.  

MICHAEL HESTER: Again, the children that have come through from other schools, their questions, how much more knowledgeable they are, they're going to take this to another level. So when they're stepping out and they look up at that canopy and they see the possibilities, then when I hear them talk about, they're into all the engineering that goes into the solar panel and into the grid, and they've got all this down. They're having conversations that we never even dreamed about when we started this initiative. Again, we touched the future and influence it every day. And when you see the future pushing that and taking that initiative from looking up into that and running with it, you feel so good about what's coming down the pipe.  

JILL ANDERSON: Thank you so much.  

MICHAEL HESTER: Thank you.  

JILL ANDERSON: Michael Hester is the superintendent of the Batesville School District in Batesville, Arkansas. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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