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As the largest school district on Long Island—serving more than 18,000 students each year in Pre-K through 12th grade—the Brentwood Union Free School District bears a tremendous responsibility for helping its community achieve and maintain the very best learning environment for its students. For Stacy O’Connor, Brentwood’s Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations, that means investing in meaningful improvements across countless touchpoints. Delivering on this responsibility is not only her job, it’s something she takes to heart.
“We’re part of a well-rounded, diverse community that’s really committed to the success of our students,” O’Connor says. “We set the bar very high for them—they come in with challenges, and we always try to support them.”
Brentwood’s commitment to helping its students excel is clearly on display both inside and outside of the classroom—from the system’s multiple National Merit Scholars to the elite performance of its championship-winning sports teams—but these achievements do not come without hard work. Fortunately, according to O’Connor, Brentwood’s size, complexity, and unique economic dynamics can make leading the district equally challenging and rewarding. In fact, these realities were a driving factor that contributed to O’Connor’s choosing to come to the system in 2005.
“While our budgets total more than half a billion dollars, an intimidating number in and of itself, the fact is that our community really has more needs than most other school districts on Long Island,” O’Connor says. “Finding creative solutions to meet their needs is something that’s very rewarding here. Considering you may not get that opportunity in other school districts, it’s something I’m particularly proud of.”
One noteworthy solution is Brentwood’s participation in the state’s Community Eligibility Provision Program, which provides free breakfasts and lunches for all of the district’s 18,000+ students. This program alone has had tremendous impact on the community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as the district was able to continue providing meals to students and families through a “grab and go” system while other area districts were forced to shut down entirely.
Another way Brentwood has been able to enhance its learning environments while simultaneously addressing the financial needs of the system is by investing in energy performance projects—in which critical equipment, systems, and infrastructure are upgraded for both efficiency and overall throughput. Such projects enable the district’s facilities to operate at peak performance while also delivering efficiency benefits that positively impact both the environment and Brentwood’s utility bills.
Working with Sterling National Bank as its financing partner and Johnson Controls as its Energy Service Contractor (ESCO), Brentwood kicked off a $32 million effort to upgrade systems and infrastructure across all 19 of the system’s buildings (18 schools and one administrative building) in late 2020.
O’Connor, in working with the district’s financial advisors and bond counsel to evaluate and ultimately select Sterling as Brentwood’s lending partner, recognizes the value of working alongside teams who understand the need to deliver maximum value in regard to rates, terms, and exemptions, but who also demonstrate their understanding of the district’s unique needs and dynamics in the customer service they provide.
Thanks to Sterling’s long-standing commitment to community reinvestment, the bank’s public sector finance team is able to structure and support long-term financing deals that promote proactive energy efficiency improvements which might not otherwise be feasible for resource-constrained municipalities.
“The first thing you have to look at, obviously, is the competitive rate that Sterling was able to give us and also just their customer service reputation,” O’Connor says. “Quite frankly, they’re living up to that; it’s a joy to work with them.”
While Brentwood has engaged in several energy performance projects in the past, this project stands to be the district’s most ambitious and impactful. Upgrades planned for the project include the installation of high-efficiency insulation on all windows, the replacement of outdated lights with high-efficiency LED units, other assorted systems improvements, and most notably the installation of solar panels at all district facilities—the largest solar initiative ever approved by the New York State Education Department.
“At the end of the project, it’ll produce 6.5 megawatts of power district-wide,” O’Connor says. “That will virtually zero out our electric bill, so it’s quite amazing.”
And while the savings are significant—the project is expected to offset more than $42.5 million in energy costs over the life of the equipment—there are also very real and impactful offsets to the district’s emissions footprint. In fact, according to O’Connor, the project is expected to offset the emissions of more than 1,300 cars in terms of CO2 emissions alone.
Breakdown of Brentwood Union Free School District’s Anticipated CO2 Reductions. (CO2 sequestered by 188,866 tree seedlings grown for 10 years in an urban scenario; 1,674 acres of pine of fir forests; 1,349 passenger vehicles; 17,130 barrels of oil consumed. CO2 sequestered from the energy use of 630 homes for one year. CO2 sequestered from burning 38 coal railcars.)
With construction currently underway, Brentwood’s energy performance project is expected to be completed by Summer 2022. The excitement continues to build in the community as residents see the project take shape and begin to learn more about the benefits expected to come to the district and community-at-large.
Longer-term, as the district begins to realize the savings from this project, O’Connor looks forward to the prospect of putting these savings to work in the form of additional investments in the district and, specifically, inside classrooms.
“Working in the business office, I always feel it’s my job to look for the best way to save money for the school district so we can pass that on to the classroom,” O’Connor says. “At the end of the day, we’re an educational institution and that’s where the majority of our money truly belongs.”