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How One K-12 District Recovered from a Natural Disaster

Alleghany County Schools, North Carolina, faced a challenging year in 2020 after being hit with a double whammy: the pandemic and an earthquake.

Even before the unexpected and costly events, the remote, four-school district faced unique challenges. The maintenance staff struggled with operational efficiencies due to half-hour commutes between facilities, over mountain roads in all types of weather and disconnected building systems that required daily on-site support. In addition, the district was receiving only $50,000 a year in funding to cover upkeep of basic infrastructure, such as HVAC. Those funds didn't stretch far enough, causing a growing deferred maintenance backlog, which compounded the burden of aging critical systems.

“We were in a tough spot. We had multiple mission-critical systems that needed serious upgrades,” said Alleghany County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chad Beasley. “And we couldn't see a way to dig ourselves out of our capital funding gap.”

Then in 2020, an earthquake shook the entire county, splitting roads and crumbling parts of buildings. The district suffered damages and had to use what little funding it had to meet the insurance deductible. At the same time, the ongoing effects of the pandemic were causing even more operational complications and unexpected costs.

“We have to be meticulous when it comes to planned spending and maintenance, so having two unexpected—and unprecedented—events left us with few options for covering all priorities,” Beasley said. “Finding a solution that allowed us to make repairs and replacements without touching existing dollars was a game-changer.”

Tapping innovative funding models to improve facilities and budget stability

To meet the needs of the district, leadership engaged Schneider Electric to help address their growing maintenance backlog and lay the groundwork for more efficient, cost-effective infrastructure. Before the announcement of Federal stimulus dollars, the team focused on energy efficient measures—such as replacing the boiler at Sparta School and switching its fuel source from fuel oil to propane—to make sustainable changes.

The initial project scope was made possible through an energy savings performance contract (ESPC) that secured the equivalent of 30 years of HVAC funding for new critical systems—all paid for through guaranteed savings. The EPSC created $1.6 million in new funding for:

  • A new boiler
  • A new air-cooled chiller
  • Control systems upgrades
  • Interior and exterior LED lighting

The Schneider Electric team then used the information gained during the design phase to create a robust, long-term, HVAC capital improvement schedule that the district can use for future planning.

“We were amazed at how much we were able to get done with the ESPC funding,” Beasley said. “It really was a lifeline for us. And to have a roadmap for the future infrastructure planning is invaluable.”

Expanding infrastructure modernization with stimulus funding

The school district was able to do even more with another $1.4 million obtained through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).  Schneider Electric and Alleghany County Schools collaboratively identified projects that will increase ventilation, or help the district control ventilation, which ensures proper outside air is being introduced into the spaces. Therefore, students and staff will experience improved indoor air quality as a key outcome of the infrastructure upgrades.

The stimulus provided from the federal government covered additional upgrades of:

  • A new HVAC system at two gyms that never had cooling before
  • A new HVAC system at the K-2 wing of Sparta School, where students and teachers were experiencing serious comfort issues due to aging equipment and a complicated thermostat arrangement
  • A new DDC building automation system for the entire district
  • Various other HVAC upgrades across the district

These upgrades built upon on the original project scope with more advanced technology. Rather than energy efficiency issues, like outdated lighting, the district was able focus on upgrades around indoor air quality and improving technological capabilities. The Schneider Electric team helped the district achieve its top wish-list item of installing an automation system across all four schools, which reduces the burden on facilities staff who had to travel to all four campuses to manually monitor and adjust the systems on a day-to-day basis.

Without stimulus funds, the additional scope to further improve learning environments and streamline operations would have been out of reach.

“By combining Energy Savings Performance Contracting with stimulus funds and other grants and rebates, Schneider Electric can help public entities optimize their financial resources to make long-term infrastructure planning a reality,” said Tammy Fulop, Vice President, Schneider Electric. “In a post-pandemic economy, diversifying revenue streams will be critical to recovery.”

Learn how districts of all sizes can stretch their stimulus funding to make mission-critical infrastructure upgrades.

This article was originally published in K-12 Dive.