A school and a community in need set the stage for Rolling Hills Electric Cooperative, Inc. (Rolling Hills) and Kansas Electric Power Cooperative, Inc. (KEPCo) to lend a hand in securing affordable financing for vital school repairs. In 2018, the Osborne USD 392 school board contacted Rolling Hills regarding a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Economic Development Loan (REDLG) to address deteriorating and improper functioning of the plumbing system at the Osborne preK-12 school.
The original school building was constructed in 1960, with another building added in 1995. The galvanized plumbing in the original school is at the end of its useful life. Sediment build-up in the pipes is causing a systemic failure throughout the entire plumbing system, resulting in reduced water flow, low water pressure, and poor water quality. Each classroom has a sink, but only cold water is available. The 1995 addition never had hot water supplied to the classroom sinks. When water is being used in one portion of the building, water may not be available for any purpose in other parts of the building.
Although the stated need is to bring the plumbing up to date, this project represents much more than mere plumbing. Osborne USD 392 is the core of the community, both socially and economically. In these uncertain times, it is critical for the school board to ensure the school remains functional and student ready.
Had the school board not addressed this issue and the school fell into further disrepair, the school would not be safe or functional and likely would require closure. Closing the school would result in the loss of 86 jobs, which would devastate the community. In addition, the school’s operating budget of $2.7 million would exit the community as well. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the community to recover from such an economic impact, as the effect would be felt by scores of businesses within the community. And as equally important, a closure would diminish the student’s level of education, since the proximity of many of the students to another school would double in miles, and in a few cases triple, thus impacting learning.
Enter Rolling Hills and KEPCo to aid with securing funding for the needed school repairs. Available through rural electric and telephone cooperatives, the USDA REDLG program was developed in 1989 and is designed to promote economic development and job creation projects in rural communities. KEPCo wrote and submitted the application to the local USDA office in Kansas, where it was scored using evaluation criteria such as project description, business plan, financial plan, nature of project, project cost, legal documentation, environmental requirements, and socioeconomic data, among others. The application was then sent to USDA in Washington, D.C., where it was placed into a competitive (based on scoring), nationwide, quarterly selection process. Osborne’s application scored well and was approved in its first round of eligibility.
Osborne 392 bonded their capital outlay fund and Rolling Hills purchased the bonds with the funds from USDA at a zero percent interest rate, which provides significant value to the district. “The zero percent interest rate will allow the district to keep cash on hand in case of an immediate need. Increasing taxes was not an option, as the farm economy is depressed and the school board did not want to burden the local patrons with a tax increase,” said Troy Langdon, Osborne USD 392 superintendent.
The involvement of Rolling Hills and KEPCo in this project is an example of one of the seven principles that guide electric cooperatives – concern for community. “Rolling Hills has been active in the USDA REDLG program for many years. Not often does the opportunity come along to not only help one entity, but an entire community and 270 students as well. I was delighted to be involved and work on this project and I am grateful to everyone that helped in getting this application across the finish line,” said Doug Jackson, Rolling Hills’ General Manager.
Work will begin on the school early this summer and will be completed before classes resume in August, welcoming students back to a campus without plumbing and water quality issues for decades to come.