Finding a way to cut its monthly energy bill was the reason the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District installed solar panels this fall at three of its schools here in California's Central Valley.
But the decision made it possible this fall for the district to bring back its music program, which had been lost three years ago to budget cuts, a situation faced by thousands of school districts across the country since the recession began.
That's made a big difference already for the five schools in this rural, impoverished district, which serves about 2,200 students just outside Fresno.
"Every single child needs to have a reason and a purpose," said superintendent Russell Freitas. "We'd love for all our students to want to come to school to get a great quality education. But ultimately, a lot of students might need to have something [else] that motivates them to come to school."
Getting involved in music gives the students here – more than 90 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunches – a way to actively participate that traditional classes don't, he added.
"Students involved in music will do better academically," he said. "I know how valuable music is, because at my previous district I saw what it did for kids... I think every single child should have [that] opportunity, whether they come from an affluent home or from poverty."
The school district hired San Mateo, Calif.-based Solar City to perform the roughly $3.9 million installation, which was financed with a school construction bond. The solar energy provider estimated the solar panels will save the district $900,000 in their first five years of use, and about $9 million over 25 years.
Firebaugh-Las Deltas is hardly alone in moving to solar power, especially in the post-recession era of lean state education budgets.
"We have begun to see a rapid adoption for solar energy," said Tobey Corey, Solar City's chief revenue officer, adding that the company had installed its solar panels in more than 45,000 buildings since its founding.
"We are seeing companies that understand sustainability cutting their costs," he added. "It [renewable energy gleaned from solar panels] takes a big bite out of a corporation's budget, and it takes a big bite out of a school's."
Reducing the bite taken by energy costs has allowed the Firebaugh-Las Deltas district in ways that improve its students' education every day, Freitas said.
"These kids are great kids, and when I see them in there playing... you can see the emotion," he added. "They deserve it just as much as any student in the state of California, and I'm just tickled pink."
Solar Panels Save the Music
From our partners
Making the leap to solar power for three of its five schools was not only good for the environment. It also helped California's Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District bring back a music program that had been lost to budget cuts three years ago. (Courtesy Firebaugh-Las Deltas USD)