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An Arkansas school district turned energy savings from solar panels into teacher raises

Posted at 12:14 PM, Jan 22, 2021

BATESVILLE, Ark. — There are more than 1,400 solar panels sitting outside Batesville High School. The panels power seven different school campuses, but what’s collected there is much more than just power.

This technology is helping hard-working teachers like Jeanne Roepcke give more to their students. Roepcke has been teaching in this school district her entire career after graduating from the very same high school years ago.

"I started with elementary, moved to middle school, and now I'm at high school, and my husband jokes that they're going to graduate me out the top one of these days," laughed Roepcke.

Her days are packed from the morning announcements to the final bell, and then she keeps going.

"So, like what many, many teachers have to do today, I do have a second job," she said.

Even though she loves her part-time job helping out at her community center, it takes a toll.

"Having to work or choosing to work a second job in the evenings is very stressful. It's very hard to work all day here and then go to another job in the afternoons and you know work there and then get home late," she explained.

Now, thanks to the energy-saving technology outside her classroom, the district was able to give all its teachers a raise. It's news she couldn’t believe at first.

"Well, when you hear something like, ‘A solar panel initiative is coming to your district,' and the huge amounts of money that it's going to cost for your district, the first thing you think of is, ‘Oh my goodness! That's a lot of money! How will that ever pay back into the district?’" she wondered.

Thankfully, it paid back big time. The district used money from a bond to cut energy costs across all seven Batesville schools. They worked with energy company Entegrity to do an energy audit to find out where green measures could save the district money.

They installed energy-efficient lights and insulated buildings to keep heat in, and the solar panels were the final piece to the project.

"We're able to lower our monthly bill from around $17,000 a month to around $4,000," said Megan Renihan of the Batesville School District.

Now, all the energy the panels collect becomes a credit with the electric company, saving about one point five million dollars to put back into teachers' pockets.

For Roepcke, the raise lifted a heavy burden off her shoulders.

"I'm only working my second job on the weekend, so it definitely, it has freed up a lot of my time. I feel like, you know, I'm a better teacher. I'm fresher and more energetic," said Roepcke.

This project has also helped her son make the choice to teach just a few classes down from his mom. Talon Roepcke is now an art teacher and baseball coach at Batesville High School.

"It's just nice to know that I can stay here and make the money that I need," said Roepcke.

Batesville schools were second to last in the Northern Arkansas area for teacher pay, and now, they pay the highest of all five local districts.

"We have school choice in the state of Arkansas, so that meant not only could our students choose to go to a different campus but also our teachers, so by improving the pay raise in our area, it attracted and is retaining those teachers, giving our students the best education," said Renihan.

An education that will soon have green energy centered curriculum for the students.

"It's something I might actually want to learn about. It sounds actually educational and like something I could use," said 10th-grader Beau Bledsoe.

The students know this project is giving something their teachers could use, too.

"They work hard for us, to teach us, so I’m very happy for them," said 9th-grader Alexander Tenace.

But in the end, teachers with that special heart to give are happiest when helping their students, not themselves.

"It's wonderful to have this new initiative and make more money, but honestly, I would have been here anyway because this is where I want to be," said Roepcke. "This is where my heart is. The students are what makes it so important to me."

With that spirit of togetherness, Roepcke knows her school, like its mascot the Pioneer, will propel her and her students into the future by thinking green to give green for generations to come.