Healthy Schools

Three Truths About Meeting Sustainability Mandates in K–12 Schools

Today’s K–12 leaders are tasked with everything from adhering to rigorous academic standards to implementing operational procedures to building healthy school communities, and for many, sustainability unintentionally falls to the bottom of the priority list. It’s a tale as old as time—education leaders have too many competing priorities fighting for their attention and for a portion of their shrinking budgets. Further, the cost of taking on green initiatives is on the rise, making it even more of a challenge for financially strapped school districts to meet sustainability expectations and commitments.

The U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) issued a one-time survey of school districts in 2020, which found that an estimated 54% of public school districts needed to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools. At the time of the study, approximately 41% of school districts needed to update or replace heating, ventilation, air conditioning and cooling (HVAC) systems in at least half of their schools, and about a quarter of districts needed to update or replace other elements like lighting, roofing, security systems or plumbing in at least half of their schools.

Not only can outdated infrastructure cause damage to buildings, such as floor or ceiling leaks, but it can also have consequences on occupants’ physical health due to factors like low lighting, poor air quality, extreme temperatures, mold growth and more. Old building systems can also affect occupants’ mentalhealth, resulting in struggles with student performance, focus and testing. For these reasons, it’s essential that education leaders bump sustainable infrastructure to the top of their priority lists and learn how to overcome common challenges in modernizing their building systems and features.   

Here are three truths behind K–12 sustainability mandates that leaders need to internalize and act on to create healthier learning environments for the future.

Sustainability Can Save You Money

Yes, it’s true that sustainability projects can have steep upfront costs, but the return on investment is exponentially worth it. Updating or replacing aging infrastructures in schools reduces their energy consumption and cuts overall operating costs and utility bills in the short term—while also helping avoid unexpected equipment failures in the long term.

However, education leaders often aren’t aware of the affordable funding solutions available to them to support sustainability projects. Perhaps the most well-known federal funding option of late is the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, a federal program available to K–12 institutions through September 30, 2024, that provides school districts with emergency financial assistance for a variety of projects—including building upgrades to improve student health. There are other affordable financing opportunities available through government programs, public-private partnerships, performance contracting and other avenues.

The first step for leaders to obtain the appropriate funding and tackle sustainability projects is to identify their infrastructure’s biggest weaknesses. This is done through audits of HVAC systems, indoor air quality, energy and water use, etc., to establish baselines and determine where upgrades are needed. Audits can also illustrate how much schools are currently spending on their building systems and how much they would save with more efficient solutions. Tailored audits are a great way to ensure that schools’ sustainability spending aligns with the improvements that are most necessary.

Sustainability Can Enhance Learning

There’s nothing more motivating to education leaders than the chance to improve students’ learning experience and academic outcomes. Sustainability projects in individual schools and across districts can improve everything from indoor lighting, air quality, temperature, noise levels, etc., to provide students and teachers with more comfortable and productive environments for learning. When the environment is more comfortable, students will be focused and productive academically—not to mention more physically and emotionally healthy.

The Gulf County School District, headquartered in Port St. Joe, Fla., has seen firsthand how sustainability initiatives can enhance student learning and wellbeing. When the district was hit by Hurricane Michael in 2018 and then the COVID pandemic a few years later, they turned these crises into an opportunity to rebuild more resilient learning spaces. District leaders partnered with Johnson Controls to develop a project roadmap and implementation plan, and to leverage alternative funding solutions like grants and performance contracting. Over just 22 months, the district made $20 million in upgrades to seven buildings, including a full replacement of equipment in the district’s central energy plant. They saved nearly $8.3 million in utilities, maintenance, operations and capital costs. But, more importantly, the schools are now safer, more comfortable and future-proofed to weather what’s ahead.

Sustainability is Achievable with Small Steps

Sustainability projects can feel intimidating to education leaders who don’t know where to start. A natural response can be to kick the can down the road, especially for schools or districts that are not yet facing formal building performance standards from their state or local governments. This practice might result in deferred maintenance, which can lead to health hazards and costly repairs, and all schools will be accountable to state or municipality mandates soon enough, so it’s much more logical (and affordable) to meet these standards proactively instead of battling deadlines later down the road. It all comes down to taking small, realistic steps.

Luckily, there’s an ever-growing array of solutions to address different sustainability challenges – it’s simply about learning what’s possible and matching the right tools to the job. Whether education leaders are looking for climate-control equipment, better lighting, more advanced safety and security features or anything else – there’s a solution that exists and can be financed affordably. Schools that are already facing specific mandates can use digital systems to streamline and monitor compliance and track and report against key sustainability goals.

The bottom line is that sustainability needs to be a top priority for today’s education leaders, but they don’t need to figure it all out on their own – they can lean on outside partners with expertise in both sustainability and education and take advantage of innovative technologies to pave the path forward.

About the Author

Cheryl Aquadro is the Vertical Market Director of K–12, Sustainable Infrastructure for Johnson Controls. Cheryl has worked at Johnson Controls since 2008, previously holding positions as a K–12 Account Executive and later as Area Sales Manager.