Make no mistake about it. Education is big business. Our children may be the primary beneficiaries, but the business of education is one that you and I bankroll daily. In any given school district, about 45% of the funding comes from local funds, about 45% comes from state funds and about 10% comes from Our Father Who Art in Washington. From these three buckets, you and I fully fund K-12 public education. Our K-12 education business is currently costing us just shy of $700 billion per year. Is business good?
K-12 public education is one of the hardest businesses in which to measure a return. Inherently, we know there is a lot of waste in the education business. If we measure its net profit by the amount of money directly used for student learning, everything else is either a fixed cost or cost of sales. Like any business, if you can reduce the overhead, more money drops to the bottom line.
If employee costs are the cost of sales, then the largest fixed costs are energy and transportation. In business, fixed costs will kill you. In San Francisco, they’re attacking their largest fixed costs through an energy sustainability program and they’re seeing some remarkable results. Back in 2008, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) hired Nik Kaestner as its Director of Sustainability. Since that time, Nik and his team have saved the district over $16 million in energy costs, and they are now on a path to produce as much energy as they use, which by 2040 will come to fruition and save the district millions, all of which will drop to the bottom line.
Kaestner said “Utility bills are generally the second largest budget item after salaries. Depending on utility rates and climate, a school district the size of San Francisco could be paying $20 million in utility expenses per year. Reducing the energy use of its buildings vis behavior campaigns, modernization projects or deferred maintenance can therefore help to improve a district’s bottom line."
Since 2008, SFUSD has been able to reduce the energy intensity of its buildings by a third, and its natural gas usage by almost half. This has resulted in electricity savings of $600K and gas savings of $1.4 million per year. (Note: SFUSD has a subsidized electric rate; without this municipal power, electric cost savings would have been four times as high)
We don’t expect savings in building costs. If anything, a small up-front investment is needed to build better, more efficient buildings.
We have also not calculated the savings associated with increases in fuel economy of our fleet. Our current project, to switch to renewable diesel, will likely be cost neutral although it will reduce greenhouse gases by 50-60%.
There is a lot of talk about zero net energy buildings in the sustainability world. According to Kaestner, “Zero net energy means that a building’s energy usage is offset by onsite renewable energy. It is achieved by reducing the energy intensity of a building to 20-25KBTU/SF/YR." (Note: according to the Department of Energy, an average school has an EUI of 58 KBTU/SF/YR) In general, an efficient two- or three-story building can offset its energy usage with rooftop solar panels if the roof is kept mostly free of mechanical equipment.
"SFUSD has a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2040. As part of this goal, we are requiring new buildings to be designed as ZNE-Ready schools (everything but the solar panels) and our first new ZNE building, at Claire Lilienthal Elementary, is currently in design. We are also modernizing existing schools to achieve ZNE-ready status over the course of two bond cycles. Our first modernization project, Garfield Elementary, had its kick-off meeting last week.”
I asked Kaestner about the other benefits of running a sustainable education organization He said “We are adding dashboards to our new and modernized buildings to allow teachers and students to engage with the buildings and incorporate it into the curriculum. This will help to prepare our graduates for life in a resource-constrained world where sustainability skills are of increasing interest to employers.”
In other districts, like the Austin Independent School District in Texas, sustainability is a work in progress. Gina LaMotte, Founder and Executive Director of EcoRise Youth Innovations, was involved in the process early on. EcoRise began in one public high school in Austin, Texas, with the mission of inspiring a new generation of sustainability leaders. They will serve 100+ schools in Texas in 2017, and over 500 schools domestically and internationally, including a pilot with San Francisco Unified School District. One of the hallmarks of the EcoRise program is to involve the students in the planning and implementation of school district sustainability, like the plan in place for the Austin Independent School district.
EcoRise has developed a K-12 project-based curriculum that introduces students to environmental literacy, social innovation and hands-on design skills. Green professionals serve as guest speakers and project mentors to help students solve real-world sustainability challenges involving energy, water, waste, transportation, air quality, food and public spaces.
Austin’s solution was to build a sustainability framework as a guide. According to LaMotte, “Having served as a Co-Chair for Austin ISD’s Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee in its early days, I can tell you that the work of greening a school district is complicated and messy. With so many stakeholders, a million competing priorities and amazing projects happening in quiet corners across the district, it is difficult to build a common vision, get a handle on the facts and mobilize a team. This is where the Whole-School Sustainability Framework can help – by offering a mental model and common language to organize around.”
Like San Francisco, Austin has a Sustainability Manager. Darien Clary implements programs and tracks performance in water and energy conservation, recycling & composting, alternative transportation, green building and teaching and learning. Clary said “Our Board of Trustees adopted a 2010 Resolution and 2011 Environmental Sustainability Policy that solidified district-level support for sustainability as an economic, environmental and social priority to be taught and practiced throughout the District. In 2013, the group became an official district advisory body, and now operates as the Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee (ESAC). At present, the sustainability plan contains over 24 goals and 100 strategies and is in its final stages of development.
One of the most rewarding parts of integrating sustainability into a school district is the opportunity to build excitement and capacity in our students to address real-world challenges through a holistic lens. Including strategies for teaching and learning in the sustainability plan provides a way for students to directly contribute to the district’s sustainability goals. The schools become “living labs,” where student initiatives serve as tools for project-based learning while advancing sustainability at the district.”
LaMotte agreed, adding “The most effective and exciting strategy for driving sustainability in a school district is by handing much of the job over to the students. Forward-thinking districts, such as Austin ISD, can champion the benefits of sustainability. They can provide the right investments, grant permissions and build the infrastructure to support this movement. But the real opportunity lies in the power of the world’s largest untapped resource, students. Can you imagine a more engaging and rigorous classroom assignment than one which challenges students to build a district-wide strategy, mobilize an entire community and save the world?”
Aaron Spence, superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools and recently named the state’s top Superintendent, is also a proponent of engaging students in real-world, sustainability issues that are authentic challenges. Spence said “In order to do that, it has to be connected to authentic experiences and authentic challenges. For example, here in Virginia Beach, we’re really interested and focused on sustainable practices and teaching children sustainable practices. Why? Because we sit on the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean and we are one of the most threatened cities in America with regards to sea level rise. We think those are some significant challenges that our students are going to have to solve.”
The business of education continues, as do the challenges of funding the education of our nation’s children. Sustainability movements, such as the ones in San Francisco and Austin, are gaining steam around the country and offering financial alternatives that are delivering real savings to their districts. Involving the students is proving to be a real resource as well. Collectively, they offer innovative thinking and a commitment to their communities that translate into not only cost savings, but long-term thinking that their elders have never been able to achieve. The result? A more sustainable world for their children and a future that looks greener by far.