ST. MARIES — The St. Maries Joint School District found an alternative to raising local taxes for school improvements: apply for a chunk of $178 million in funding from the federal Renew America’s Schools Grant.
St. Maries will receive $14 million to improve HVAC systems via energy-efficiency measures and mechanical systems sourced from local businesses. McKinstry Co. builders will design HVAC system upgrades at Heyburn Elementary, Upriver Elementary, St. Maries Middle School, St. Maries High School, and an alternative learning building with the goal of providing “reliable, energy efficient, long-lasting systems for the community” (according to a press release).
Former superintendent Alica Holthaus applied for the first round of grant funding earlier in 2023 with an eye towards a lasting impact by bringing 30- to 100-year-old district buildings into the 21st century.
“This was something that Alica always wanted to accomplish, knowing that these updates were needed for the health of everyone and adding that efficiency to make it viable,” incoming St. Maries superintendent Teresa Rensch said to EdNews. “Now that that funding is secure, she said she’s passing the homework onto me.”
Energy efficiency measures slated for St. Maries will exclude the need to burn fossil fuels for hot water. Instead, heat pump systems will generate heat from pellet biomass boilers, which are more efficient even when low outside air temperatures reduce heat pump capacity and efficiency. Envelope sealing, along with siding and drainage improvements, will be installed to eliminate mold growth potential. Buildings will use less energy while upping ventilation air to improve student respiratory health.
The district’s purchase of “clean, green biomass fuels” from local businesses is intended to reduce energy costs from burning fuels while reinvesting in the community. The project will also bring experiential pedagogy into St. Maries schools.
The green energy project will be an opportunity for hands-on science and career and technical education curricula for secondary St. Maries students. Learning can include how shared heat/cooling systems work, waste biomass fuel environmental benefits, and the communal impact of installing and operating these systems. The $14 million grant can also teach kids how to track down necessary financing.
“In the community, it’s tough to pass a facilities levy and ask for more from taxpayers,” Rensch said. “It also wasn’t there in our own budget, so the need for building something that seemed almost undoable is now doable.”
The $178 million flagship round of Renew America’s Schools grant is part of a $500 million U.S. Department of Energy initiative to promote the implementation of clean energy improvements at K-12 public schools across the country. This investment is a part of President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which aspires for energy upgrades in school communities that will “lower utilities costs, improve indoor air quality, and foster healthier learning environments” (according to the DOE).
“The future of America goes through the schoolhouse door. There’s nothing more critical than investing in the health and education of our nation’s kids,” senior advisor to the President and White House infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu said in a presser. “Because of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, 74,000 children will reap the benefits of schools that are more comfortable, energy efficient, and safe.”