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Green Technology Helps Center School District Save on Utility Costs

Art Credit: KC Education Enterprise

Every day that the heating and air conditioning is on at Center Elementary and Center Alternative schools, the district is saving money. That’s because, when the aging schools’ HVAC systems required updating last year, the Center Board of Education chose to install geothermal heat pumps.

“We really wanted to focus on energy savings and conservation,” said district spokesperson Kelly Wachel.

A geothermal heat pump draws warmth from the earth in winter and acts as a heat sink in summer. Art Credit: 123rf stock image

Geothermal systems operate by using the earth as a heat source during cold weather and a heat sink during warm weather. Pipes circulate throughout the schools and underground, where the earth maintains a nearly constant temperature of about 55 degrees. A pump transfers heat from the earth to the classrooms in winter or back to the earth in the summer.

The district paid for the $2.2 million project with proceeds from its 2010 school bond sale.

Geothermal systems cost more to install than conventional HVAC but require less energy to run and so may pay for themselves in about five years. A report on how much the district saved during the first year of operation is being compiled but is not yet available, Wachel said.

Because of lower property valuations and declining sales tax revenues statewide, Center’s school board — like most in the Kansas City metropolitan area — has been struggling to balance its budget over the past several years. Utility savings for the district could be significant. Nationwide, the cost of energy is the second-largest biggest budget item for schools, according to information from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program. Salaries and benefits are the number-one expense.

Geothermal heat pumps now heat and cool students and staff at Center Alternative School. Photo Credit: Center School District

In addition to wanting lower utility bills, Wachel said that Center’s school board wanted to use green technology because of the district’s emphasis on conservation education for students.

Burns & McDonnell employees (whose world headquarters is located in the district) have created a “Learn Green. Live Green” program for Center students. At the Alternative School, as part of this program, young people participate in a jobs internship by growing garden seeds and native plants in a greenhouse. At Center Elementary, grade schoolers research the water cycle in a rain garden and eat fruits and vegetables from their community garden.

Geothermal energy heats and cools classrooms at Center Elementary School. Photo Credit: Center School District

As another environmental conservation measure, the school board installed pervious concrete at Center Elementary when hard surfaces needed to be replaced. Water can seep through this special concrete into the ground instead of running off into storm sewers.

On November 3, 2009, voters authorized the Center school board to sell bonds to finance furnishings, renovation and construction in the district. In addition to installing geothermal heat pumps at the two schools, the district spent about $1.2 million on technology during the 2010-2011 school year. Other bond funds went toward basic maintenance such as window and door replacements and roof repairs.

Center currently carries about $39 million in bond debt, according to financial reports the school board received during their meeting on August 22. That’s more than $2,000 per person who resides in the district. According to state law, the legal debt limit of the district is about $60 million.

In addition to bond sales, districts can raise money through tax levies. Earlier this month, voters went to the polls and approved a 76-cent increase in the property taxes they pay to support the Center School District.

Vanderford & Associates of Smithville, Mo., installed the geothermal heat pumps at Center Elementary and Alternative schools.


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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.

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