Sustainability With a Sane Tack

Minnetonka’s UPonGREEN initiative makes inroads in facility use and effects changes in personal behaviors and attitudes by DENNIS L. PETERSON

I’ve been in education long enough to remember the bright orange stickers above every light switch reminding us to turn off the lights during the energy crisis of the 1970s. I remember the TV commercial scanning piles of loose garbage along our highways, then panning out to show a tear rolling down the cheek of a Native American.

Our disregard for the planet, our seemingly endless consumption of finite resources that polluted the land and air, and, of course, the 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo gave birth to an environmental movement and spawned numerous public policies and public agencies focused on changing our personal behavior.

Dennis PetersonMinnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson with a worm farm maintained by 5th graders as part of their school's composting process.

We’ve seen trends and mandates come and go in public education since that time. Now, almost 40 years later, I might have been skeptical when a group of parents asked to meet with me to get our school district on board with UPonGREEN, a national certification program for environmentally friendly practices in an organization. Minnetonka School District is well on its way to greening up.

I made another important observation during that meeting. The elementary parents advocating for eco-friendly practices are a new generation of parents, a generation of customers our public schools serve. We need to take notice.

As I’ve considered the sustainability movement for education leaders, I see it breaking into three domains: physical plant, behavior expectations and environmental activism. As superintendents, we must be prepared to work in all three areas.

Physical Plant
Minnetonka School District is a long way from becoming certified in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. We have 10 school buildings with original construction dates ranging from 1929 to 1967. Even with additions and renovations, the average age for total square footage is 40 years.

Deferred maintenance projects have accumulated over the years, and it is only within the last seven years that our schools were old enough to qualify for special long-term maintenance funding per Minnesota statute. We are landlocked and unlikely to construct any new facilities during my tenure. In the area of our physical plants, each of our projects has been a renovation, remodel or retrofit.

Mike Condon, responsible for the district’s buildings and grounds, credits automated building-control systems with providing the most significant return on our eco-investment. Seventy-five to 80 percent of our classrooms have unit ventilator systems with CO2 detection and variable frequency drive motors. The individual units will adjust power levels based on the occupancy in the room.

Working collaboratively with building principals, each building established daily work hours. Systems power up 30 minutes before the teacher workday begins and power down 30 minutes after the teacher workday ends. But each room still has an individual control for power (not temperature) for staff who arrive early or stay late.

After-hours use of school facilities by community groups is high in Minnetonka, but most use is confined to isolated areas of the school. Our community education department and buildings and grounds department work together to consolidate adult and student enrichment into our secondary schools and confine activities to concentrated areas of the building. The advantage is that only one or two zones of a building use the utilities instead of powering up an entire school or many schools for a handful of activities. Individual room controls allow us to heat or cool only the area of the building in use at the time. The unit ventilators also allow us to address air quality issues.

Illumination Issues
Many of us have read the studies on the effects of air quality and lighting on student learning. Retrofitting lighting to T8, full-spectrum lighting, which benefits instruction and energy savings, was an easy decision that contributed to our bottom line. Combining energy-efficient lighting with occupancy sensors has eliminated the need for those bright orange “Turn Off the Lights” eyesores we affixed in the ’70s.

Early generations of automated technologies were problematic, shutting off the lights while students were reading or being too still for too long. Room occupancy sensors now can be more precisely adjusted for range of movement. We found we need to adjust the settings for kindergarteners who weren’t being “sensed” when they were in circle time sitting on the floor.

The benefits of natural lighting are equally clear: improved classroom climate, less fatigue and more creativity. Reaching up to the sky, above the traditional roofline, clerestory windows and skylights have succeeded in bringing natural light in with all of our renovation projects.

One big question for us was replacement or retrofitting of the boiler systems. After comparing cost and unit life expectancy, we chose the 83-85 percent retrofit for a 50-year life instead of the 25-year life expectancy of new high-efficiency units.

“Being efficient with all of our resources is just smart business, plus it helps the environment,” said Paul Bourgeois, Minnetonka’s executive director for finance and operations. “We really focus on total cost of ownership — using sustainable building materials (for example, replacing painted wall surfaces with large ceramic tiles), incorporating clerestory windows in the design for natural lighting and incorporating high-efficiency-rated window and door replacements into every renovation. We even maximized efficiency in our pools, by adding ultraviolet water purification systems to reduce long-term chemical costs.”

In Minnetonka, we have added 116,000 square feet, including 32 classrooms, community education and meeting space, a gym and a competition swimming pool, with no increase in our utility budget or custodial/maintenance staffing over the last five years.

Behavior Expectations
At a parent meeting to discuss the school district’s UPonGREEN initiative, a mother got us moving in new directions when she said, “I think everyone has really nailed down the three R’s in Minnetonka, but we could make it easier for them.” My mind naturally assumed she was referencing reading, writing and arithmetic. Instead, she was focused on reduce, reuse and recycle.

Participating in a county pilot project in 2003 put Minnetonka on the leading edge for organics recycling. In each school lunchroom, students today sort their garbage into three bins: organics for composting, plastics for recycling and trash for the landfill or incinerator. Paper, plastics and cans are regularly recycled. Parents and students have taken on advocacy roles in teaching and reminding students to sort their refuse.

The more difficult group to train is adults. Our UPonGREEN group has identified special events as one of our most consistent challenges: Dads’ Spaghetti Dinners, Imagination Fairs, and football and basketball games. When visitors come to our schools, they are not conditioned to separate items, and we need to make it easier for them. For years, we’ve lacked consistent labeling and standard signage to reduce confusion. In fact, this is one area where the recycling industry is taking the lead, with a new standard launched this summer (www.recyclemoreamerica.org).

An easy fix, but perhaps one of our biggest challenges, has been standardizing containers (a new twist on standards in education). I’ve fielded parent requests for multiple color-coded containers, in multiple locations — even every classroom — so children and parents become conditioned to sort their trash. In the midst of a state budget crisis, I’m not inclined to make the purchase of 900 recycling containers a higher priority in the district budget than a classroom teacher.

Luckily, as with most behavior expectations, technology is beginning to conform to, instead of change, human behavior. Our newest waste-removal contract calls for mixed recyclable containers (one container collects paper, plastic and cans). Studies show simplifying the act will increase recycling frequency, reduce cost for receptacles and decrease the number of trucks needed to haul waste (another eco-benefit). The recycling machines do the sorting. I have to thank our waste removal company for removing this barrier and hope the rest of the industry follows suit.

Sensible Criteria
UPonGREEN (www.upongreen.com), which originated with one of our parents in suburban Minneapolis, identifies 14 common-sense and cost-reducing criteria, consisting mostly of Environmental Protection Agency recommendations, to reach eco-friendly goals relating to energy and water use and reducing the waste that ends up in landfills. We’ve achieved at least nine goals. Ten of the criteria require changes in personal behavior — purchasing practices, maintenance practices and “green” operations.

The UPonGREEN actions are:
1. Purchase Energy Star-rated lighting systems;
2. Recycle glass, paper, plastic, aluminum, batteries,
electronics and fluorescent lighting;
3. Use postconsumer recycled office paper in printers,
fax machines and copiers;
4. Set programmable thermostats with Energy
STAR-recommended settings;
5. Promote the use of or offer incentives for
employees to use no or low CO2 transportation;
6. Hibernate and shut down computers using
Energy Star-recommended settings;
7. Remove the school district’s name from unwanted
mailing lists;
8. Maintain proper plumbing to avoid water waste;
9. Buy organic, natural or sustainable products;
10. Avoid purchasing plastic-bottled water;
11. Buy locally, within 100-mile radius, whenever
12. Encourage employees and student families to meet
criteria and get UPonGREEN;
13. Conduct an energy audit each 24 months; and
14. Donate and/or volunteer for social and/or

I admit we are a long way from reaching several of the criteria. In the fight against plastics in our landfills, we investigated vegetable-based compostable water bottles, being developed locally by a major corporation, but the price point made them cost prohibitive. As a result we are still serving plastic-bottled water at lunch because it is a healthy choice for students and staff. Recycling efforts are more productive at this time.

In the area of technology, we’ve discussed the pros and cons of hibernating computers and reboot time. As a national leader in using technology as an accelerator of learning, we haven’t been convinced the potential loss in instructional time is worth the automated shutdown. But I suspect our practices will continue to evolve.

Every classroom in the school district is equipped with a SMART Board and LCD projector. This year, we began asking teachers to give their projector two “duty-free, 15-minute breaks” each day. Powering down the LCD allows the machine to cool and extends the life of the bulb, but this is still a manual practice, and we must rely on human behavior.

Environmental Activism
There is no mistaking that today’s elementary school parents are a new generation of parents — well educated, tech savvy, conscious of their carbon footprint and ready to move to action. They have a lot of ideas, and they want to make a difference in their community and their schools. School leaders will be asked to support numerous charitable-giving, community-service and special-interest initiatives. We must weigh well-intended requests against the important work of learning, within the time constraints of the school bell.

When a group of parents approached me in spring 2008 to endorse UPonGREEN, I saw new ideas that encouraged us to move beyond our school routines and out of our comfort zones. As a district leader, I have supported but not mandated these efforts. The eco-movement they propose is one that must grow from the grassroots.

Each school in Minnetonka has a building representative who works with the principal and PTA/PTO to help their school progress through the UPonGREEN criteria. For some schools, it has been a good fit within the school culture, curriculum or special events. At other schools, they struggle to find a champion. In the end, the schools that have been successful are responsive to the interests and volunteer commitments at their school.

Grants at one school funded classroom worm farms to teach about composting. Students feed their worms leftover snacks and organic trash. At another school, students produced videos with students teaching students about sorting, recycling and composting. Some schools have been creative in weaving earth-friendly lessons into existing curriculum, such as creating artwork from repurposed trash. Interdisciplinary lessons are effective, but we have been clear that eco-activism cannot replace core curricula.

One of our schools, home to our K-8 science chair, is dreaming bigger. Inspired after seeing a local news station run an entire news broadcast with human energy from power-generating bikes, a school committee envisioned and planned an environmental science lab that would be energy self-sufficient (powered by solar and human energy), with a green roof collecting rain water for use in the lab. However, after two years, the project is struggling to generate the funds to construct their dream. Persistent, they continue to seek corporate or research sponsorship.

All of our schools are active with recycling drives for used books, Christmas lights, batteries, cell phones, Crocs (plastic clogs) and nontraditional plastics, but we have been cautious not to turn our school lobbies into recycling centers. We learned a pesky lesson during a drive to recycle juice pouches; after fruit flies appeared, the drive was cut short.

Eco-stewardship lends itself well to leadership development opportunities for students and involvement opportunities for parents. When the two work hand-in-hand, we protect teacher instructional time and increase student ownership of the projects, which leads to success.

Schools always have been a microcosm of the communities they represent. The same children who toss a plastic water bottle in the garbage at home will need to be reminded to recycle at school. But we also know our schools shape the actions and character of future generations through the lessons we teach today. Don’t we as leaders bear some responsibility for teaching children the values of respect and stewardship for the finite resources Mother Earth provides and the problems of a throwaway society?

Simple Ways
Many believe a successful environmental movement can be as vital for our economy and society as it can be for our planet. If so, schools have an undeniable opportunity: to play a powerful role in furthering our nation’s environmental progress and, in so doing, improve operating efficiencies, as well.

Through our focus on responsible stewardship of all of our resources and our involvement with UPonGREEN, I’ve found simple ways to reduce our carbon footprint and to provide a bridge for connecting with the younger generations of parents in schools today. Working toward UPonGREEN’s 14 simple criteria rewarded work already under way and inspired new thinking for environmental leadership in our community.

In the end, we are furthering our mission of inspiring students to envision and pursue their highest aspirations while serving the greater good.

Dennis Peterson, 2009 Minnesota Superintendent of the Year, is superintendent of the Minnetonka Public Schools in Minnetonka, Minn. E-mail: dennis.peterson@minnetonka.k12.mn.us