In Times of Tight Budgets, Colorado State Study Finds School Districts Can Save Big Bucks and Energy

Is it possible to build and operate school buildings that create dynamic teaching spaces for kids, conserve energy and cost less? Yes: A new study from Colorado State University found that Poudre School District in Fort Collins did just that. The district adopted a complete, top-to-bottom approach to sustainability and is now saving roughly more than $1 million per year.

Schools across the nation face serious budget deficits, and in most public schools, energy costs are the second largest expense after employee salaries. Efforts to reduce these costs often are focused on building standards and new technologies. Jennifer Cross, assistant professor of sociology at CSU, led a research team that looked beyond these traditional ideas to determine how schools can change their energy use habits through cultural change within the organization.

Researchers ultimately identified three main factors that allowed the district to develop a conservation-oriented culture: organizational change, appropriate framing and network collaboration.

Since 2000, Poudre School District (PSD) has constructed six new energy efficient schools – Zach, Bacon, Fossil Ridge, Kinard, Rice and Bethke – one office building, and has made significant improvements to the efficiency of existing buildings. The district has received more than 30 awards recognizing its commitment to sustainability and energy conservation in buildings. On average, PSD spends 37 percent fewer dollars per year on energy expenses than other Colorado school districts.

“This is a significant cost savings that is truly the result of the district’s firm commitment to sustainability,” Cross said. “The district is literally using less energy and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars less than other districts. When budgets are tight as they are, other school districts need to pay attention to how PSD was able to accomplish this. In fact, what happened in Poudre School District was inspired by budgets being a problem a decade ago. ”

Fostering a conservation culture

In the report, “Organizational Innovation for Energy Conservation: A Case Study of Poudre School District,” the research team discusses how the district fosters a culture of sustainability. The report also offers recommendations for all school districts and organizations looking to enhance energy conservation efforts.

The research team found that, during the past decade, the district experienced a number of organizational changes that together created a conservation-oriented culture. In 1999, the district established the Green Team, a group of representatives from Facilities Services, Business Services and various external organizations. The Green Team was charged with researching sustainable and energy efficient building technologies to be applied in the district.

“PSD is a sustainability leader because it made a commitment to sustainability and underwent a complete organizational transformation that began with adopting a sustainability mission that integrated care for financial resources, care for the planet and care for kids and learning,” Cross said.

Eight steps to conservation-oriented culture

Based on their study of Poudre School District, the researchers identified eight steps an organization should follow to create a conservation-oriented culture:

  1. Change the mindset;
  2. Establish a team;
  3. Create a clear vision;
  4. Communicate the vision;
  5. Empower the team;
  6. Use early success to continue the process;
  7. Learn from mistakes; and
  8. Embed sustainability into daily practices.

Another important factor in the organizational change was the framing used for the issue. At first, PSD’s Green Team found that many people were averse to words such as “green” or “sustainable.” However, that didn’t mean they lacked concern about energy use or environmental impact. The Green Team successfully re-framed the issue to address financial, environmental, educational and professional concerns. Sustainable building projects were eventually referred to as “high-performance buildings” or “high-performance design.”

The researchers emphasized the use of interpersonal networks as the third aspect of the school district’s organizational change. Collaboration within the district, through the Green Team, and with external partners created learning opportunities and fostered support for greater innovation than would otherwise have been possible. External partners, such as the Governor’s Energy Office, Fort Collins Utilities and the Brendle Group, provided valuable insight and information to district employees as well as to employees who connected with other districts and product manufacturers.

“PSD was able to build innovative and energy-efficient buildings because they developed systems that support continuous learning inside and outside the organization,” Cross said.

What’s next?

Now that the district has successfully fostered a culture of conservation, they are examining how to expand on these ideas. The research team has provided three main recommendations for making the sustainability mission more widespread: further engage teachers, institutionalize the process and expand outreach efforts.

Cross and her colleagues suggest further inclusion of parents, students and teachers on the design team to enhance involvement by all school district stakeholders. These groups were involved in the success of the 2000 bond design, and their continued and further integration is encouraged in the 2010 bond and school-based conservation efforts. Another suggestion is the creation of a specific Green Team within the educational community.

In 2006, the district adopted a “Sustainable Management System” developed by the district in collaboration with the Brendle Group. This system provides a framework for the institutionalization of these energy and building improvements into everyday operations by tracking sustainability goals and encouraging new goals.

The 2011 Green Team is currently meeting to research and develop solutions for the building and renovation projects included in the 2010 bond. The district is looking for opportunities to reach their solid waste and greenhouse gas reduction goals and continue to minimize utility expenses.

This research project was funded by the CSU Clean Energy Supercluster.

Cross’ team included Zinta S. Byrne, associate professor of psychology at CSU; Michelle Lueck, CSU doctoral candidate in sociology; Bill Franzen, president of Sage 2 Associates; and Stu Reeve, energy manager for the Poudre School District.