Solar panel project put on hold in Little Falls School District

The Little Falls School District has put a hold on a solar panel project for 2017, that included multiple school districts. The project, brought to the Board by Region 5, would have also included solar panels installed at the Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus districts and the Leech Lake Tribal College.

The plan in Little Falls was to put a solar array on the new roof of the middle school (which will be completed at the end of May), as well as the roofs of the high school and Lindbergh Elementary.

The new roof was part of the referendum passed in 2016.

The solar array was not part of the referendum, and would have been paid for through grants and business partnerships put together by Region 5.

The $4.4 million solar project, said Cheryal Hills, executive director of Region 5, was meant to save the districts money.

For Little Falls, the return on energy through the project was not what it had hoped for, said Supt. Stephen Jones.

Add to that, Ten K Solar out of Minneapolis, the company the grants dictated must supply the solar panels, was liquidated, he said.

The figures presented to the Board in April by Michael Krause of Kandiyohi Consulting, assumed Minnesota Power’s rates  would increase 2.5 percent annually on average. Estimates were the Little Falls district could save $1,156 on its utility bills during the first year of operations, and possibly $31,160 over 25 years.

Although the initial investment would be paid for through a $2 million grant applied for by Region 5 from Xcel Energy and another $2 million from New Energy Equity (NEE), as well as investment partners, the current plan had no protections for the district during the 25 years of the project partnership.

“Things happen in 25 years in terms of whether it’s a leak in a roof or damage to a solar panel,” said Jones.

While the other school districts would be reimbursed at a higher rate for the power generated  because they had a different power company, Jones said they had the same concerns. The superintendents met with Region 5 and the decision to put the project on hold was made.

“There is no chance of this happening in 2017,” said Jones, who indicated that was a good thing.

“It provides us the opportunity to really sit back and see if this is feasible at all,” he said. “There’s a slim line for us, with little room for error. That was cause for concern.”

Jones said the Little Falls District would have had the largest number of solar panels on its schools’ roofs, and the least amount of payback.

“Even if Ten K had not gone under, there were legitimate concerns,” Jones said.

In fact, he said the superintendents of the school districts involved had set up the meeting with Region 5 before they learned the company had liquidated.

“There was not a person involved with this that doesn’t believe ethically that it’s the right thing to do; it’s a good project,” said Jones. “But it’s not a good project if someone is left out for liability pieces and that’s the issue that not only us, but the other school districts had concern with.”

Sharon Ballou, chair of the Little Falls School Board and the Board representative at Region 5, said all the Board members had concerns about future liability.

“We just want to make sure that with this 25-year commitment, that future School Boards aren’t stuck with something we decided,” Ballou said. “We want to make sure all the ducks are in a row before we proceed.”

She said any of these projects that include more than two entities get very technical.

The environmental impact and energy savings aren’t the only things that would benefit the district, Ballou said.

“One of the benefits of this solar system was the fact that there was an educational component too,” she said.

Students could use the system as a learning tool, seeing how the energy is used by tracking it and recording it.

“We want to save money, but we wanted the educational part, too,” she said.

In Ballou’s eyes, it’s not a dead project.

“We just want to do everything for the protection of our school district,” she said.

Little Falls School Board Briefs

At Monday’s meeting, the Little Falls School Board:

  • Approved hiring Katelyn Fuhrman as an emotional, behavior disorders (EBD) teacher, starting Aug 28; Janet Naber as kitchen assistant at the high school, effective April 5; Joel Youngberg, head girls basketball coach starting 2017-18 school year; and Mattia Hendrickson, .5 elementary teacher and head Nordic ski coach for the 2017-18 school year;
  • Accepted the resignations of Nancy Ballantine, PCA/EP position at the high school, effective May 12; Manon Gammon-Deering, kindergarten teacher at Lindbergh, co-head girls cross country coach and assistant middle school track and field coach, effective May 26; Daniel Przybilla, cleaner at the middle school, effective May 26; Aaron Sinclair, assistant superintendent effective June 30; and Joel Youngberg, boys basketball assistant varsity coach;
  • Approved a resolution for members in the Minnesota State High School League for the 2017-18 school year;
  • Reappointed Board Member Sharon Ballou to the Region 5 Development Commission from February 2017 to February 2020;
  • Designated Supt. Stephen Jones as the official with the authority to authorize user access to the Minnesota Department of Education website for the Little Falls School District;
  • Learned from Jones that a budget had not been completed yet, because the Legislature was at an impasse and education funding is unknown, something school districts were promised would not happen this year, he said. Jones indicated many districts were already making cuts either because they were necessary or in anticipation of what the Legislature may do. He said a budget would be presented once figures were known;
  • Approved submitting the resolution to approve the National Joint Powers Alliance innovative funding grant application, for 10 programs;
  • Learned 85 area businesses made donations for Day of Caring;
  • Learned 216 homeowners were helped during Day of Caring;
  • Accepted donations to the Abigail Segler Fine Arts Memorial Scholarship from Emera Charter No.160 Order of Eastern Star – $500, Carol Berg – $500, Jim and Deanna Kasella – $100, Diane and Gregory Colombe – $500 and David Larson – $500;  to the Flyer Pride Pack Weekend Food Backpack Program from CHI Basketball League – $420, First Lutheran – $500, Mid-Minnesota Federal Credit Union – $200, Lindbergh Lions – $250, Morrison County United Way – $1,000, and Knights of Columbus 1804 – $200; to the Community Services for Youth Recreation from Ripley Township – $300, Township of Green Prairie – $300, Belle Prairie Township – $500, Pike Creek Township – $300, Little Falls Sportsmen’s Club – $200, Little Falls Rifle and Pistol Club – $200 for Clay Target League; to Little Falls Area Schools from Flyer Athletic Boosters – $4,835 for treadmills and $1,010 for football team equipment, city of Little Falls – $1,000 for girls golf, Crow Wing Power – $9,000 for the scholarship fund, Randall Cushing Lions – $1,000 for scholarships, Jack Zehren – $1,000 for the Vern and Bunny Zehren Scholarship, Mary Larson – $300 for the Vern and Bunny Zehren Scholarship, David and Peggy Stumpf – $150 for a swimming scholarship, Lynn Halstead – $500 for the Female Athlete of the Year, Catherine and David Adamek – $25 to the Flyer Robotics team, Nancy Henderson – $R386.02 to the high school musical.

The School Board’s next meeting is Monday, June 19, at 5 p.m. in the Board Room at the Morrison County Government Center.