In this age of energy and environmental consciousness, much attention is currently being focused on the design and construction of high performance schools. Yet, while proper design and construction constitutes an important first step, without a long-term commitment to comprehensive environmental management, not even the best high performance school can hope to stay high performing for very long.
This explains why the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) includes “Health and Indoor Air Quality” among their 10 goals for high performance maintenance and operations (and the U.S. Green Building Council includes “Indoor Environmental Quality” as a requirement for earning its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Certification for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB).
The key to bridging the gap between a district’s commitment to high performance environmental management and attaining effective learning environments lies in the development and implementation of a comprehensive, district-wide environmental management plan (EMP). To be effective, the EMP should cover the policies, procedures, programs, and activities required to optimize the health, safety, comfort, and performance of all students, staff, and visitors on school property. A partial list of the functional areas included in a comprehensive EMP is provided below to illustrate the diversity of responsibilities included in this important operations and maintenance subset:
- Indoor air quality management
- Integrated pest management
- HVAC system maintenance
- Solid waste management
- Custodial services
- Preventive maintenance
- Chemical and equipment procurement
- Fire and life safety
- Regulatory compliance
- Landscaping and grounds maintenance
- Renovation and construction maintenance
- Building security and safety
- Maintenance staffing and scheduling
A Necessary Paradigm Shift
Traditionally, these elements have fallen or, in many cases, been forcefully thrown under the district-wide maintenance and operations (M&O) umbrella. However, high performance environmental management demands a paradigm shift away from the notion of the building custodian or maintenance supervisor as the sole guardian or steward of the learning environment. Attaining and maintaining effective learning environments requires the buy-in and, in many instances, the direct participation of all school stakeholders, from the teacher responsible for ensuring that unapproved chemicals are not brought into the classroom to the administrators and school board members responsible for crafting and instituting a district-wide chemical safety policy.
The Sticks: Costs and Consequences
Although carrots are notably good for us, it is the sticks in life that somehow seem to better motivate us toward immediate action. Therefore, before examining the many benefits (carrots) associated with implementing an effective and comprehensive approach to environmental management, let us first consider the multiple costs and consequences (sticks) of not doing so.
School environmental mismanagement can exert a profoundly adverse effect on both district finances and district operations. These effects can range from the insidious increase in energy expenses due to prolonged periods of deferred equipment maintenance to the multiple expenses associated with a full-blown media event arising from the unexpected discovery of mold in a classroom.
However, not all costs associated with environmental mismanagement can be expressed easily in financial terms alone. Indoor environmental pollutants such as mold, dust, and animal dander can affect indoor air quality (IAQ) and trigger health problems such as headaches, allergies, and asthma attacks. Consider the physical and emotional distress of a young girl in the throes of an asthma attack triggered by her exposure to dust mite allergen at school. We often ignore the fact that these “costs,” imposed upon students, staff, and the community, while not directly reflected on the district’s accounting ledger, take their toll in terms of human performance, productivity, and overall well-being.
On the other end of the scale are the socioeconomic (macro) effects of environmental mismanagement which ultimately determine how resources will be allocated both nationally and locally to resolve building and operational deficiencies. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site, more than 53 million children and about 6 million adults spend a significant portion of their days in more than 120,000 public and private K–12 school buildings across the United States. As our school buildings continue to age, it is somewhat surprising that the socioeconomic costs associated with our prolonged mismanagement of the school environment have proven somewhat ineffective as a motivational force.
According to American School & University’s 35th Annual Maintenance and Operations Cost Study, the median K–12 school district spends a paltry 7.58 percent of total expenditures on maintenance and operations (M&O). This amount is more than 2 percent lower than the amount spent 10 years ago. For comparison, colleges allocate 11 percent of total budget on M&O. These numbers make a strong statement about the priority that many districts place on facility management.
A partial listing of the financial, human, and socioeconomic costs associated with poor environmental management is included in Table 1. Note that while the human and socioeconomic costs may evade direct financial quantification, both indirectly exert a profound effect on the bottom line of every school district in America.
The Carrots: Multiple Benefits
Just as the costs and consequences of environmental mismanagement are multidimensional, so too are the numerous benefits associated with effective and comprehensive management of the learning environment. The following list is made more impressive by the fact that the benefits are derived from the real life experiences of school districts from across the United States that have implemented an active approach to environmental management:
- Cleaner, safer, healthier, and more productive learning environments leading to enhanced comfort, productivity, and well-being for all school occupants
- Fewer illnesses and injuries by students and staff
- Reductions in workers’ compensation premiums and medical expenses achieved through fewer workplace injuries and illnesses
- Increased student and teacher attendance achieved through fewer illnesses and injuries incurred at school
- Elevated student and teacher performance through improved attendance and the correction of gross building deficiencies
- Significant reductions in asthma attacks and allergy episodes through control and elimination of environmental triggers
- Improved quality of life and learning particularly for individuals afflicted with asthma, allergies, and other environment-induced illnesses
- Improved labor relations and employee satisfaction as concerns over environmental issues are immediately addressed and quickly resolved
- Fewer lawsuits filed by sick or injured workers resulting in reduced legal expenses
- Increased public trust and community engagement with the elimination of environmental emergencies at school
- Reduced energy consumption and utility bills achieved through regular and frequent preventive maintenance
- Extended service life of school buildings with improved maintenance and operations
- Increased public funds available for educational programs through diversion of funds previously spent to correct major building failures and deficiencies.
As scientific research into the relationship between student performance and school environmental factors continues to emerge, few would argue against the right of every child to a clean, safe, healthy, and comfortable environment in which to learn and the responsibility of every school district in America to deliver on that expectation.
The Strategy: High Performance Environmental Management
To accomplish this, school districts must now embrace a more aggressive and proactive strategy toward environmental management. The strategy, referred herein as high performance environmental management, includes the following four elements:
- Comprehensive building-wide environmental health and safety (EH&S) assessments conducted of all indoor and outdoor learning environments regularly
- Comprehensive, district-wide environmental management plans that cover the programs, policies, procedures, and accountabilities necessary for addressing EH&S issues, preventing future problems and ensuring long-term environmental excellence
- Training for all school stakeholders on their individual roles and responsibilities toward making the learning environment a safe and healthy place for everyone
- Regular communication of all environmental management programs, activities, and results between all district stakeholders.
At first glance, this may seem like a daunting, if not impossible undertaking given the multiple priorities that school administrators already juggle. But, you can do it! High performance school environmental management is not merely a lofty ideal attainable by only the most well funded and well staffed of districts. It is an expectation shared by the 53 million students and 6 million adults who populate all 120,000 of our nation’s K-12 facilities every school day.
Fortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed an impressive suite of products, available at no cost to school districts, that can help school personnel more effectively manage their increasingly complex learning environments, while significantly lowering the barriers and costs associated with doing so. Visit www.asbointl.org/environmental and www.epa.gov/schools for resources.
This article originally appeared in the September 2006 School Business Affairs magazine and is reprinted with permission of the Association of School Business Officials International (www.asbointl.org).