Americans Support Green School Investments

A new poll, sponsored by United Technologies Corp. and the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools, offers surprising results on the perceived state of our schools and support for federal investment in school building improvements that focus on green renovations and retrofits. We discussed the results of this survey and how districts with limited budgets are finding ways to be energy efficient with Rachel Gutter, director of the Center for Green Schools.

Released earlier this month, the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Center for Green Schools’ independent poll surveyed more than 1,000 Americans by telephone in September. 

Included in the findings of the poll are numbers that support the momentum behind the green building movement. “I think that for all of us the most interesting finding, and perhaps for many the most surprising, was that fully 73 percent of Americans said that they were supportive of federal investment in school infrastructure improvements,” Rachel Gutter points out. Nearly three out of four Americans supporting federal investment in retrofits and renovations; this number is quite different from what we’ve heard out of Washington, especially during debates over school construction funding over the Recover Act and now with the Jobs Act. “What we hear from Congress is that we’re a nation divided on this issue of whether it’s the federal government’s place to support school infrastructure improvements. Congress will tell you that that’s a partisan issue; Republicans go one way and Democrats go another way.

“It turns out that people on the ground — the average American — they’re really not divided on this.”

Also of note is the condition of schools in the U.S. “At least 90 percent of Americans say that school buildings are no better than adequate in America,” Gutter adds. Despite poor condition, many districts have switched their budgets to focus on renovation and additions over new construction. Even still, Gutter notes, “Communities are really hurting. They don’t have the money that they need at the local level to provide the kinds of improvements that their schools are so desperate for.” Federal money for these much needed retrofits and renovations would be welcome relief to cash-strapped districts.

The trend from budgeting for new construction to renovations and retrofits was also noted in School Planning & Management’s 16th Annual School Construction Report. In 2010, total school construction was $14.5 billion — down for the third year in a row. Less than 60 percent of the money was spent for new buildings, the rest going to upgrades and additions. While total construction dollars spent was down $1.8 billion from last year, the surprising trend is that in 2010, spending on addition and renovation projects rose by more than $1.4 billion.

What falls under the category of green retrofits and renovations? “Anything that would be an aspect of pursuing a LEED certification is noted as an eligible use of funds,” Gutter states. “So, that could be anything from energy efficiency upgrades, like with lighting or HVAC systems, to water efficiency improvements to ventilation improvements to acoustical tiles.”

Green schools are not just environmentally friendly; these improvements save districts money. According to the USGBC’s release about the poll, green schools average $100,000 in savings yearly on operating costs. Utility costs are also reduced with green schools: they average 33 percent less energy consumption and 32 percent less water use compared to conventionally constructed schools. Money saved from green renovations and retrofits can go back to the schools to purchase equipment and supplies or even to help pay teachers’ salaries.

Even districts with small budgets for additions and renovations have found ways to include green improvements in their buildings. “I think that the place where school districts are really looking to is around energy efficiency improvements because when you improve the energy efficiency of the building, you in many cases improve the learning conditions outright … it has to do with upgrading decaying or dysfunctional systems, but you also have the added benefit of having additional savings come in over the long run,” states Gutter. Often these types of retrofits have a payback period within the first couple of years to even less than a year.

Districts without the money to spend can still make a big impact on their energy consumption and utility bills. Gutter says that many school districts are educating their teachers, students and staff to better use and operate their school buildings. “The Department of Energy says that that kind of education resulting in shifts in the way that people interact with their space can reduce energy use as much as 25 percent.” A 25 percent reduction is nothing to sniff at, and school districts practicing these principles have had great success.

“We’ve got schools in Fort Collins, Colo., and rural Kentucky that are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per school (across the districts millions of dollars) per year on basic operation shifts — basic operational improvements and occupant education,” Gutter explains. “In the case of Kentucky, while every other school district in that region has been laying off teachers, this district hasn’t had to because of the amount of success that they’ve had with their energy efficiency program.” In Fort Collins, money the district is saving on energy efficiency measures is going straight back to the schools’ classrooms.

A green school doesn’t have to be a newly constructed building; it could be a school installing new HVAC equipment and low-flow faucets or teaching its students and teachers to effectively use the space available in a building and turn off the lights when they’re not there. The results of this poll show that Americans support federal investment in these types of retrofits and renovations that will help districts operate more efficiently and in line with green principles, creating a healthier building for the environment and improving the indoor environment for students, teachers and staff.

“I think that the overall findings of the poll — whether you’re looking at a stat on the broad support for improvements to school infrastructure using federal dollars or whether you’re looking at the American opinion on the general condition of schools or you’re looking at the kinds of benefits that Americans perceive to be associated with green school improvements — I think that the overall results of the poll are that green schools are bipartisan. They offer one of the few things that both parties can agree on right now. Better quality schools make for better quality education and higher performing students,” Gutter concludes.

“In a moment when we are frozen on so many policy matters, this is something that at least the American public has come out and said they agree on.”

For more information about the Center for Green Schools and the poll results, visit