Pennsylvania superintendents join Fiedler in Harrisburg, urge state Senate to pass Solar for Schools legislation

HARRISBURG, JUNE 11 -- Superintendents and leaders from school districts across Pennsylvania rallied at the state Capitol Monday to voice support for state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler’s Solar for Schools legislation.

Solar for Schools is a proposed grant program that would fund solar energy projects at public K-12 schools, community colleges and career technical schools across Pennsylvania. Fiedler said it enjoys broad bipartisan support from leading labor, environmental and education organizations.

The superintendents present at the rally represent school districts in Dauphin, Indiana, Cambria, and Cumberland counties that are already taking advantage of solar energy. Fiedler has visited several on her statewide Solar for Schools tour.

“On the Solar for Schools tour we’ve taken over the last year, I have been blown away. We’ve seen firsthand forward-thinking school districts and school leaders putting into place exactly what we talk about in the Capitol: giving kids hands-on, career building opportunities, capturing their attention with exciting projects in the green energy field, and finding ways to partner with entrepreneurs and building trades to put kids to work in meaningful careers,” Fiedler said.

Despite passing the House with considerable bipartisan support nearly one year ago, the bill has not been brought up for a vote in the state Senate. Fieler pointed out that due to expiring COVID funds, the ongoing school funding crisis, aging school facilities, teacher shortages, and declining tax bases, school districts across the commonwealth need immediate support; by constructing and operating solar arrays, schools could generate their own energy and save money on unpredictable market-rate energy costs.

Fiedler kicked off her tour by visiting Steelton-Highspire High School with state Reps. Dave Madsen, D-Dauphin, and Jordan Harris, D-Phila., shortly after introducing her bill. The school district has a 1.7-megawatt solar array on a former landfill that powers 100% of the district’s energy needs and is projected to save $1.6 million in energy costs over the next 20 years. The district recently unveiled electric school buses that plug into the array.

“My school district is currently underfunded $11.7 million based on the fair funding formula and has been working at a deficit for the past 15 years. As a traditionally underfunded school district, we look for ways to maximize our dollar amount and generate revenue, looking for little wins along the way,” said Mick Iskric, superintendent for Steelton-Highspire School District. “A solar renewable project was and continues to be one of those wins.”

In November, Fiedler visited Homer-Center School District with state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana. Homer City is one of many areas in Pennsylvania struggling to adjust to an energy economy moving away from fossil fuels. Following the closure of the state’s largest coal plant, Homer City predicts a $750,000 loss in local tax revenue annually.

"With the potential loss of tax revenue from the closing of the Homer City coal-fired power plant, we continue to look for any and all solutions to be responsible stewards of our community's financial support,” said Ralph Cecere, superintendent of Homer-Center School District. “We have seen cuts to federal program dollars, increasing costs related to inflation, and a supportive community paying more than its share to fund our schools. A funded solar array would allow our district to save approximately $180,000 per year in energy costs. In addition, we want to be good partners working toward a sustainable future for our Wildcats!”

Joe Luther, executive director of Admiral Peary Vocational and Technical School, spoke about similar challenges at his school.

“Cambria County was built on coal, and those days are long gone, they are long behind us. We need to make sure that our kids are prepared for anything electrical, whether that be a solar installer or an electrician that’s going out on the rooftops,” he said.

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Beaver/Greene/Washington, joined state Rep. Bud Cook, R-Washington/Greene, and Fiedler for a tour of West Greene School District in April to explore the possibility of constructing solar panels on school grounds. Bartolotta attended Monday’s press conference and spoke about the importance of keeping costs low for taxpayers in areas suffering from shrinking tax bases.

“We can recommend to our school districts: you don’t have to keep raising school property taxes to pay for a lot of your needs because you’re going to get your energy issue taken care of. That is going to be absolute music to the ears of our taxpayers,” Bartolotta said. “I look forward to helping you in any way that I can on the other side of the building, the other side of the aisle, the other side of Pennsylvania, to get this done.”

Carlisle Area School District in Cumberland County demonstrates that beyond offering school districts a lifeline to help pay their bills, solar energy can provide schools with exciting STEM and career education opportunities. Carlisle students use live data points from their 1-megawatt solar system to learn about clean energy in science classes. Its array is owned by the school district, fully powers Bellaire Elementary School, and has generated over $600,000 in solar renewable energy credits.

“Let's face it: K-12 public schools spend a lot of their money on staffing. Venue and cost savings means more teachers, counselors, and support staff for our children. And as important as the revenue and cost savings are to the district, even more powerful to me is that we are teaching our children about the importance of saving energy and being good stewards for the environment,” said Colleen Friend, superintendent of Carlisle Area School District. “I urge legislators to support the Solar for PA Schools grant program.”

Also attending the rally were PennFuture Director of Government Affairs Adam Nagel, PA AFL-CIO President Angela Ferritto, and PA Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Mike Ford and President Rob Bair.

“I’ve been in this building a long, long time, and I’ve seen a lot of state money go out the door with very little return,” said Blair. “But this is the first bill that I can actually say is going to have a positive return on investment. We’ve got to get this done. We’re in budget season. Now’s the time to do it. Together, we’re going to put educators first. We’re going to put our school districts first. And by God, we’re going to help clean up the environment while we do it.”