School's solar panel savings give every teacher up to $15,000 raises

Renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar are generating more power in the U.S. than coal. Ben Tracy visits a rural Arkansas school district using the sun's rays in an unusual way.

Video Transcript

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- In our "Eye on Earth" series, we can share a bit of good news in the battle against climate change. Cleaner renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar are generating more power in the US than coal. That's encouraging because burning coal produces planet-warming emissions. It makes sea levels rise and weather more extreme. CBS News senior environmental correspondent Ben Tracy visited a school district in Arkansas that's turning sunrays into paydays.

JEANNE ROEPCKE: Let's review real quickly.

BEN TRACY: Jeanne Roepcke has been a teacher in Arkansas for 24 years.

Why are you a teacher?

JEANNE ROEPCKE: Oh my gosh, the students. Absolutely, completely the students.

BEN TRACY: Can I assume you don't do this for the money?

JEANNE ROEPCKE: (LAUGHING) If you're in it for the money, it's the wrong profession. You know, its not the right choice.

BEN TRACY: Roepcke's school district in Batesville, Arkansas, prides itself on putting students first, but when it came to paying its teachers, Batesville was next to last in this part of the state. Salaries averaged about $45,000.

MICHAEL HESTER: And we weren't keeping people because of that.

BEN TRACY: Michael Hester is Batesville's superintendent. He was losing teachers and having a hard time getting new ones to move to this rural Arkansas town of about 10,000 people.

MICHAEL HESTER: People aren't in this business obviously for the money, but they should not have a vow to poverty to teach either.

JEANNE ROEPCKE: Thank you.

BEN TRACY: Jeanne Roepcke has been working five nights a week at the local community center just to make ends meet. But then she started hearing a rumor--

JEANNE ROEPCKE: Oh yeah. Teachers love to talk.

BEN TRACY: --about an unusual solution to Batesville's budget problems--

JEANNE ROEPCKE: Well, at first you're like, what is that about? Really what's that about?

BEN TRACY: --that would allow this school district to truly live up to its name.

JEANNE ROEPCKE: Don't sleep on Arkansas. We'll surprise you every time.

BEN TRACY: This school took an unused field out back and filled it with hundreds of solar panels. It also put up a new solar canopy stretching across the entire front of the high school-- in all, nearly 1,500 panels aimed at recharging Batesville's budget.

RICK VANCE: Now Batesville is the Pioneers. And they really did pioneer solar in Arkansas.

BEN TRACY: Rick Vance works for the local energy company that helped the district save more than $600,000 in utility costs.

RICK VANCE: They did it at a time when no one else was doing it. Well now, everybody's doing it.

BEN TRACY: Solar power costs a lot less than it used to, mainly because it's now cheaper to make the panels. In the past decade the price of solar has dropped 89%. So to both save money and the planet, more than 7,000 schools across the country are now using solar power. That's up 81% in just five years.

But as far as anyone can tell, Batesville is the only school district that's turn panels into paychecks.

RICK VANCE: Batesville has reduced the checks they write to utilities and increased the checks they write to teachers.

BEN TRACY: With the money it saved and made by selling electricity back to the grid, Batesville has handed out bonuses two years in a row, boosting every teacher's salary by as much as $15,000. The district, once one of the worst, is now the best paying in the county.

Are you getting more resumes these days from teachers who want to come work here?

MICHAEL HESTER: Not only are we getting more resumes, we're getting fewer resignations.

JEANNE ROEPCKE: That's good.

BEN TRACY: Jeanne Roepcke has seen her pay go up by thousands of dollars, enough to dig out of debt and cut way back on her hours at the community center.

JEANNE ROEPCKE: Thank you.

BEN TRACY: Did you ever in your life imagine you'd get a raise because of solar panels?

JEANNE ROEPCKE: Nope. No, it would not have been one of the things that I thought. But, what a great idea. The sun is going to be shining anyway, so why not cash in on that?

BEN TRACY: And she's grateful her school realizes that putting students first starts with their teachers.

JEANNE ROEPCKE: It's good to know that they care about us. It feels really, really good.

BEN TRACY: Now our teacher, Jeanne, says one of the best parts about not having to work all those hours at her second job is she has more time to help out her students who are learning from home because of COVID. And, you know, schools across the country are using their solar panels in different ways. Here in Washington, DC, this school put their solar installation above their parking lot. Anthony, you get a little solar shade here when you park your car.

- (LAUGHING) I like everything about this story, Ben. Thank you very much. More pay for teachers, solar panels--

- And we like teacher Jeanne.

- Yeah, we do.

- Yeah.

- I wish she was on of my teachers. You can feel her energy just jump off the screen.

- Put a solar panel in front of her. You'll pick up the power.

- Yeah, we like her.

- She's great.

- That was great, Ben.