‘Sensemakers’ Leading the Way to Green Schools


Keeping schools affordable for the future is the best return on investment that a school district can make. Superintendents who can articulate a vision of sustainability that focuses on a triple bottom line — addressing environmental, educational and economic perspectives — are viewed by their constituents as effective stewards.

This emerged as the principal message from a dissertation, “Superintendents as Sensemakers in the Design of Sustainable Schools,” that I completed at Oakland University last year. I explored the experiences of six superintendents in Midwestern school systems that had been involved in recent construction projects.

Barbara KlockoBarbara Klocko

Several school leaders made significant strides in sustainability because they had flexibility to make complex decisions. I termed this their “sensemaking” capacity.

The example of two superintendents, John Silveri and Scott Menzel, are illustrative of this.

Public Favor
In 2005, when Marysville Public Schools was looking for someone to replace a long-term superintendent, board members sought a sensemaker who could address the district’s aging facilities, badly in need of renovation. Marysville is a 2,900-student suburban district northeast of Detroit.

Silveri, who accepted the superintendency, found the high school he inherited had a patchwork of classroom additions and inefficient, outdated mechanical and electrical systems. Energy costs were skyrocketing.

In a turning-point election in May 2007, voters approved, by a 51-vote margin despite a volatile economy, a $74.6 million bond to build a new Marysville High School and renovate four other schools. In a more economically stable 2003, a much smaller $19 million bond proposal had been defeated by a 2-1 margin.

Marysville’s new high school, which opened in 2009, is almost 100,000 square feet larger, yet the district expects only a slight increase in energy bills because of sustainable building practices that were part of the capital project. The building’s geothermal heating/cooling system is expected to save the district about $60,000 a year compared to the conventional boiler and chiller system.

“If we’re saving at least one teacher’s job a year through our energy savings, we’ve made some great decisions along the way,” Silveri said.

One of the most compelling sustainable features at the new Marysville High School is the stained concrete floors throughout the building. Less expensive than terrazzo, stained concrete floors reduce costly maintenance while still presenting an exceptional appearance. In addition, stained concrete flooring promises improved air quality when compared to carpeted school floors.

Making It Green
Inside and out, sustainable buildings reflect the values of their communities, and it was then-superintendent and sensemaker Menzel who articulated a vision for a small, rural community north of Ann Arbor, Mich. In asking voters of the Whitmore Lake Public Schools to support the construction of a new high school, the board of education committed to a sustainable design to enhance educational opportunities for students, ensure cost efficiency in operating systems and emphasize the importance of environmental responsibility.

“Building green represented an opportunity for us not only to talk about the importance of the environment, but to demonstrate that commitment in a practical way,” said Menzel, who left Whitmore Lake Public Schools in 2007 to head an educational service agency in Michigan.

His vision turned out to be strategic, as Whitmore Lake was experiencing a drastic enrollment decrease at the high school level. “The old high school was not a destination,” Menzel said. “We had a huge dropoff from the freshman to senior class, anywhere from 30 to 50 kids.”

To address the declining enrollment, the community leaders made a bold move in July 2003 through relatively uncharted waters. They made the commitment to construct a green, LEED-certified high school. LEED® initiatives were uncommon at the time anywhere in the country, with only 60 projects officially certified with the U.S. Green Building Council.

Once the high school opened in fall 2006, enrollment grew from 335 students to 417. Today students from surrounding areas choose to attend Whitmore Lake High School.

Bottom Line
Silveri and Menzel have not just designed sustainable school facilities. They created a sustainable trust within their communities by leading as sensemakers. They were cognizant of the triple bottom line while developing their bond proposals and designing green buildings, assuring that each decision was not only responsible fiscally and educationally, but also environmentally.

Barbara Klocko is an assistant professor in educational leadership at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. E-mail: