Looking at School Budget Woes as an Opportunity

This big, ugly recession that refuses to go away is absolutely demolishing public school budgets, which is certainly no surprise. State funding for education is diminishing, many federal grant dollars have come and gone, and other sources of revenue aren’t exactly growing. The result: cuts across the board for many schools and school districts. As we heard in this story from NPR recently (yes, I listen to a lot of NPR), Texas schools are cutting teachers, teachers’ aides, sports, security, transportation, etc, etc. The list goes on and is not unique to our friends in Texas.

When the situation is this dire, justifying sustainability initiatives is difficult, and many schools are turning away from conservation and efficiency initiatives due to a lack of resources (both time and money). But the right strategy is to do the exact opposite. The longer schools disregard and ignore their use of energy and other resources, the more often they will find themselves fighting the budget battle…and losing.

Taking Advantage of the Opportunity
Fortunately not every school district is ignoring the sustainability opportunity. Our work with the Omaha Public Schools is a perfect example of how a commitment to energy efficiency can save jobs, programs and other essential components of the education system. OPS is saving over $500,000 per year in energy costs. Yes, you read that right. It’s not small potatoes. That’s a lot of books…or teachers…or meals.

What sets OPS apart? The answer boils down to leadership. I vividly recall an important and insightful comment an OPS board member made two years ago: “We build 100-year buildings”. What a perfect perspective for a school district. While many companies are fighting to keep the doors open from one quarter to the next, we know with near perfect certainty that our schools will be here in ten, twenty, fifty and likely one-hundred years. When your horizon is that long, small investments, and in some cases large investments are well worth it even during tight budget times. They often pay for themselves in less than a few years, and in some cases, immediately recoup minimal upfront costs.

Omaha’s schools are not alone in their efforts. In August of this year, the New York Times reported on many of the energy efficiency and conservation measures schools are taking to decrease their energy use. Activities run the gamut and include simple things like post-it note reminders and checklists, and not-so-simple energy audits and boiler replacements.

Not every strategy listed in the Times article is a good one, unfortunately. Namely, the “energy cop” from Mount Sinai is a temporary solution that doesn’t result in long-lasting, sustainable behavior change. Fortunately, the cop noted as much when he admitted, “as soon as you take me away, people will start their bad habits again”. Right on, officer. Right on. Not a sustainable solution. Acknowledging and recognizing good behavior is a far better long-term solution than leaving nasty notes when people don’t comply.

Static + Dynamic Strategies
Our focus with OPS has been twofold: 1) identifying and implementing one-time gains in efficiency (static strategies such as lighting retrofits), and 2) engaging people in a meaningful and rewarding way so that sustainability becomes part of the organizational culture (dynamic strategies such as point-of-use prompts or a Green Challenge Series).  The latter is, quite honestly, more difficult work. It’s infinitely more challenging to change a person’s behavior than it is to change a light bulb.

Point-of-Use Prompts help Remind Folks to Conserve

Where Schools Should Start
One of the most important things every single school district can easily and inexpensively do is to benchmark each school’s energy use with ENERGY STAR. In most cases it’s so easy that a class can easily pull the information together and establish the benchmark within a few days. In the end, each school has a number that indicates how energy efficient your building is compared to schools from around the country.

Ratings range from 1 to 100 (the higher the better). If you’re scoring low, there might be some low-hanging fruit that can save big dollars in a hurry. If you’re scoring high, congrats…top-performing ENERGY STAR labeled schools cost 40 cents/SF less to operate than an average school. Either way, once the benchmark is in place, it’s easy to maintain and is an absolutely invaluable mechanism to track progress.

Sustainability and Education
It was John F. Kennedy who said, “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” It’s a quote I ponder often. Educational leaders are under pressure to produce results, and it’s important for them to remember that sustainability is both an end and a means to an end in the educational system.


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