Let's Make Better Choices This Time

The cost of energy is having a huge effect on school budgets and this is not the first time — the oil embargo of 1973, the natural gas shortage during the winter of 1977, the effects of energy deregulation, and now, the gas crisis of 2008. Until the 1970s, there was minimal concern about supply or sharp price escalations. Energy was so inexpensive that school administrators, architects, and engineers were able to increase its use with little effect on the budget. Unfortunately, this is no longer true.

Many of you are old enough to remember OPEC and the oil embargo of the 1970s. In 1972, it cost me about 36 cents a gallon to fill my Mustang. Over the next 10 years, the price of gasoline quadrupled, peaking at $1.35 per gallon in 1982. It was common to see long lines at the pump, stations closed for lack of fuel, and no gas being sold on weekends. A weekend trip home included the call to my dad asking him to fill a gas can so I would have enough fuel for the return trip. Also in short supply was the locking gas cap, a necessity to protect what had become a very precious commodity.

This was the first real fuel shortage we had experienced since World War II. Natural gas prices rose from 57 cents in 1972, to $3.54 by the early 1980’s. The price of electricity rose 53 percent from a low of 5.7 cents per kWh in 1972, to 8.7 cents per kWh in 1982. The effect was chaos — and sometimes overreaction. The stock market plummeted; unemployment rose; the speed limit was lowered to 55 mph; year-round daylight savings time was tried; automobiles were downsized; and design changes were made to educational institutions — some good, some not so good.

The 2002 report, “Do School Facilities Affect Academic Outcomes?” written by the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF) states, “Ironically, the high incidence of symptoms stemming from poor IAQ seems to have emerged as an unintended consequence of the electric power brownouts, oil embargoes, and gas lines that characterized the 1970s energy crisis. In response to that national emergency, many buildings, including schools, were fitted with air handling systems and controls that delivered less fresh air than now is considered adequate.”

Another example is the number of schools that reduced the size and number of windows. Current research shows the positive impact daylighting has on student achievement, yet our knee-jerk reaction was to reduce the number of windows in buildings to reduce energy loss.

Many of the effects of the oil crisis of the 1970s were short-lived and soon forgotten. The per capita use of energy decreased for just two years immediately following the OPEC embargo. The speed limit increased, and the gas guzzling SUV became the car of choice. Unfortunately, many of the errors made in school construction will be with us for the next 50 years.

There is no question that the current gas crisis of 2008 will also have an effect on the economy, school budgets, operations, and design. If I had one wish, it would be that we learned from our past. Hopefully, this time we will do more than come up with knee-jerk and short term solutions. We are already hearing in the news stories about a four-day workweek, changes to school start times, the elimination of school bus routes, and a reduction in field trips and sports activities to name just a few.

To ensure that the changes made are positive, and to avoid the pitfalls of the past, school administrators need to exhibit strong leadership skills. At critical times like these, the public becomes more sensitive to the adequacy of their leadership. If they have confidence, they trust the decisions being made and are willing to assign more responsibility. If they lack confidence, they are less tolerant than usual and second-guess every decision. While public opinion may swing to energy consciousness for a time, it won’t be long before something else tops their list. The opportunity exists to make the right things happen — with the public’s support. This time, please don’t take away my windows!