School & District Management

Quick Hacks: How Schools Can Cut Costs and Help the Environment

By Mark Lieberman — December 02, 2022 3 min read
Newly installed solar panels stretch out along the north side of Madison-Grant High School near Fairmount, Ind., on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.
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School districts often struggle to navigate the vast web of funding opportunities to support ambitious projects. The problem isn’t a dearth of money, but a dearth of capacity to actually locate and receive the money.

Case in point: Earlier this year, President Joe Biden signed into law a $430 trillion spending package aiming to reduce the devastating effects of ongoing global climate change. The headlines from that package had little to do with schools.

But tucked inside the bill lies a handful of provisions that could have a major impact on districts’ budgets, according to a new guide from the Aspen Institute and the World Resources Institute.

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Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox hold a sign together and chant while participating in a "Global Climate Strike" at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Across the globe hundreds of thousands of young people took the streets Friday to demand that leaders tackle climate change in the run-up to a U.N. summit.
Haley Williams, left, and Amiya Cox participate in a Global Climate Strike at the Experiential School of Greensboro in Greensboro, N.C., in September 2019.
Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record via AP

Authors of the guide Natalia Akopian, Michelle Faggert, and Laura Schifter sifted through hundreds of pages of legislation to craft a roadmap for schools to reap the benefits of the law. Here’s a roundup of all the money that’s available to schools right now for projects that also promise to reduce the long-term costs of climate change and help the environment.

Solar energy

Districts are eligible to apply for tax credits that help defray the cost of solar panels or geothermal heat pumps, which transfer heat from the earth to buildings. Both technologies can reduce schools’ reliance on gas and provide learning opportunities for students as well.

Some projects are eligible for tax credits totaling 30 percent of the upfront cost. Districts can also get additional tax credit help for projects if they’re located in low-income communities or if they use certain materials, such as specific kinds of iron and steel, produced in the United States.

A bonus for the school district finance officials: These funds will come to districts in the form of “direct pay,” which means the IRS will send them as cash payments. Previously, a third party would have had to claim the credits and pass the benefits to schools—a more cumbersome and lengthy process.

Schools are also eligible for separate tax credits for the value of the solar energy they produce.

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Composite image of school building and climate change protestors.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)

Clean transportation

Tax credits are also available for districts that want help purchasing electric buses, which are more expensive than buses fueled by diesel. Vehicles that weigh more than 14,000 pounds could qualify districts for up to $40,000 in relief. Once again, direct pay is an option.

Districts could pair tax credits from that offering with funds from the $5 billion pot of grant money that the U.S. Department of Energy is doling out to help schools transition to electric buses. Connecticut, Maryland, and New York have already passed laws nudging school districts to electrify their fleets in the next 10 to 15 years, as have some cities, such as Boston. More are likely to follow.

Buses aren’t the only transportation-related item of note in the bill. Electric vehicle chargers are growing more popular nationwide, and a handful of schools have already installed them in parking lots for staff, bus drivers, and community members to use. Districts that install electric vehicle chargers, which can also provide power to school buildings in case of emergency, are eligible for reimbursement worth 30 percent of the cost.

Energy-efficient construction and technology

Schools use incredible amounts of energy every year, emitting an estimated 72 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—the equivalent of eight coal plants, or 18 million homes, according to one analysis.

And they pay a steep price for it—nearly $8 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Improving energy efficiency can be a win-win for districts that want to save money and it can help the environment.

Here, too, federal tax credits can pave the way. For projects that reduce energy usage by 25 percent, schools can get reimbursed for 50 cents per square foot of the project area. For each additional percentage point of energy reduction, the tax credits will grow by two cents, up to $1 per square foot.

Schools can also multiply those credits by five if they meet certain federal requirements for apprenticeship opportunities and wages for construction workers. And the $500 million in grants announced by the U.S. Department of Energy can provide another boost.

Another possible opportunity for grant funding lies with the establishment of “Green Banks,” which states, municipalities, and tribes can tap for quick seed money to launch projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Schools could partner with their state or local governments to reap the benefits of those funds.

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