Better Life: Ohio School District Saves Much-Needed Money With Energy Efficiency


If you'd open the website of the Lakota, Ohio School District last week, the first thing you would have noticed, center-page, were the words “Lakota Budget Reductions” spelled out in bold letters.

The district, situated between Dayton and Cincinnati, educates 18,500 students in 22 schools, with an enrollment that’s growing every year, thanks to its reputation for academic excellence.


Energy efficiency upgrades at schools in the Lakota, Ohio school district are helping save money and retain teachers during the district's budget crisis.

Like a lot of school districts these days, Lakota is facing nothing less than a financial crisis. Enrollment is up; government aid is down precipitously. The total budget for next year is $162 million, but the shortfall is $12 million. Those are the kind of numbers that make parents’ stomachs clench, mine included. “We cut 70 staff members last year,” says Laura Kursman, Lakota’s executive director of community relations, “and we’re slated to cut 130 in the coming year.” Naturally, most of its staffers are teachers.

Why am I, an environmental lawyer, concerned about an Ohio school district with a dizzying budget crisis? Of course, education cuts have huge impacts on the future of our nation and should be of interest to everyone. But the Lakota school district is of particular interest to me—and should be of interest to citizens and taxpayers everywhere—because one of the creative ways the district has found to deal with its budget crisis is to embrace energy efficiency and renewable energy. By cutting down on its utility bills, the district saves money, saves jobs, and improves educational outcomes during tough economic times.

Chris Passarge, the district’s executive director of business operations, says energy-efficiency measures like improved lighting technologies, air sealing, and high-performance boilers, can help Lakota “take money out of our operations budget and put it into our core business, which is educating students.”

Estimates are, the district is saving enough on energy to retain at least five teachers during this time of layoffs. “Our total utilities use is down 14.5 percent over a year ago,” Passarge says, “and our costs have gone down, too.”

Lakota’s investments in energy-efficiency didn’t come out of the blue; they were made possible by forward-thinking legislation. In 1985, the Ohio legislature passed and the state’s then Governor Richard Celeste signed into law House Bill 264, which allows school districts to finance energy-efficiency measures that pay for themselves within 15 years, without requiring direct approval by local voters. (Ohio schools can’t usually issue debt without winning a ballot initiative.) Now, that legislation is bringing relief to struggling schools across the state. “In fiscal year 2010, we had 55 districts with 57 separate energy-efficiency projects,” says Rick Savors of the Ohio School Facilities Commission. “We expect them to generate about $8.6 million in annual cost savings.”

Back at Lakota, the district’s success with energy efficiency has gotten its staff excited about other ways to save money with clean energy. Toward that end, Lakota is partnering with nearby Sol Ventus Partners, located in West Chester, Ohio, to install solar panels on school facilities and grounds. Sol Ventus will pay the upfront costs, and rent roof space and empty land for its solar arrays from the district, and the district will purchase electricity back from them at rates that are the same or lower than what they pay now. A pilot project involving three buildings will likely save the district $50,000 a year. “We have 24 facilities,” Passarge says. “If we can do this with half our facilities, that’s a big number going forward.”

These cost savings, too, have been made possible by smart legislation—Ohio’s Senate Bill 221—signed into law in 2008. It requires that by 2025, 25 percent of the Buckeye State’s energy come from renewable sources. That mandate is helping build a clean energy economy in Ohio.

In tough economic times like these, parents everywhere—me included—worry about our children’s educations. Will class sizes balloon—and outcomes plummet—because we can’t afford to hire enough teachers? Will our children become disadvantaged (or, sadly, further disadvantaged) because of resources spent on waste, rather than on teacher training and new classroom technologies? The Lakota, Ohio school district’s pioneering example provides some comfort. Their investments in energy efficiency and their championing of renewable energy show the progress we can make when good public management is backed up by innovative legislation.

“When you’re faced with a fiscal downturn evolving into a crisis, you take the opportunity to say, ‘What can we do better?’,” says the district’s Laura Kursman. “I’m hoping other districts are watching us and learning from what we do.”