The Financial Return of Sustainability

Type: Article
Topics: District & School Operations, Finance & Budgets, School Administrator Magazine

April 01, 2024

Getting serious about climate action planning has its bottom-line benefits for school districts
A woman with brown shoulder length hair in a red cardigan at a podium
Anisa Heming directs the Center for Green Schools. PHOTO COURTESY OF CENTER FOR GREEN SCHOOLS

As students, parents and community leaders become more concerned about the planet’s changing climate, they are asking education leaders to take part in addressing and responding to the challenges they see close to home.

Environmental sustainability is a relatively unfamiliar concept for many in school leadership, prompting school districts to hire dedicated sustainability professionals to define goals and drive organization-wide progress that will benefit the schools and the broader community.

Even without creating new positions, assigning an individual to spearhead climate action planning, aided by professional development and effective partnerships, can be impactful. Full-time sustainability directors can yield significant returns — averaging 10 times their salary in operational savings, grants, incentives and donated services — making any investment in this role worthwhile.

A Role Defined

Sustainability staff are champions for green schools, as defined by the three pillars of the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools Award: reduced environmental impact, enhanced human health and increased environmental literacy. Through cross-departmental collaboration, they drive the development of policies, strategies, frameworks and behaviors to achieve greater whole school sustainability.

Sustainability staff ensure project follow-through, resource savings, funding opportunities and healthier facilities, benefiting staff and students. Moreover, they play a vital role in educating students about climate science, modeling sustainability solutions and involving them in green job experiences.

Due to their involvement in the Center for Green Schools’ Sustainability Leaders Network — the sole learning community for this role — we’re aware of 100 public school districts employing sustainability staff. In 2023, the Center for Green Schools published the results of our third survey about their roles, successes and challenges. Notably, we found:

Hiring PK-12 sustainability professionals at all levels, from director to coordinator, can pay off greatly for a school district. On average, sustainability staff achieve annual savings of $1 million, which equates to around $19,000 per school.

School districts that hire a sustainability professional do so primarily through the advocacy of internal staff, faculty or administrative champions.

Over time, PK-12 sustainability professionals are gaining positional power. Our 2015, 2019 and 2022 surveys show a gradual movement toward being positioned closer to their superintendent in the organizational chart.

Between 2019 and 2022, 20 percent more respondents reported working on a sustainability management plan or climate action plan, highlighting the importance of districtwide planning.

Climate Planning

Comprehensive climate action planning is needed to navigate the complex landscape of environmental sustainability and to effectively address climate challenges within districts’ educational systems. Understanding and supporting such plans empower school district teams to make informed decisions, enhance resource efficiency and cultivate a culture of sustainability, fostering a healthier and more environmentally responsible future for students and staff.

Many elements of a climate action plan, such as addressing aging and inefficient infrastructure and transitioning from gasoline to electric buses, can be costly. The good news is that the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and 2022 Inflation Reduction Act established unprecedented opportunities for schools through new and expanded funding to improve the sustainability and resilience of their buildings and infrastructure. (See resources sidebar, below.)

However, investments in more efficient energy, water and operational systems have long-term cost savings associated, which often offset first costs over time. Given that utility costs are the second highest single cost for school districts outside of personnel — totaling more than $8 billion in expenses for U.S. public school districts each year — the potential for savings is considerable.

In a 2013 literature review for the Pentagon on energy savings, the National Academies found that  savings for high-performance or green buildings on average used 5 to 30 percent less site energy than similar conventional buildings. Similarly, the studies providing some evaluation of water use found high-performance or green buildings used 8 to 11 percent less water on average than conventional buildings.

The 22 certified green buildings examined in a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory study for the U.S. Department of Energy reported almost 20 percent lower maintenance costs than typical commercial buildings.

District Experiences

The recent experiences of several school systems illustrate how climate action planning has impacted the bottom line and become core to each district’s mission.

Acton-Boxborough Regional School District

With just over 5,000 students, the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, just west of Boston, was an early leader in the green school movement, earning a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School District Sustainability Award in 2013.

Early on, led by a sustainability champion at the district who began work there in 2010, Acton-Boxborough conducted electrification and cost-analysis studies while incorporating innovative strategies in school building projects. Operating an advanced battery storage system on its main campus for the past 2.5 years, the district generates an impressive $70,000 in annual revenue and cost savings while also contributing to regional electricity grid support and stability.

In line with its comprehensive sustainability strategy, the district has invested in research to facilitate a districtwide transition away from fossil fuels. A commissioned Electrification Roadmap study in 2022 outlines a strategic timeline and costs for electrifying existing school buildings over the next two decades, aligning with Massachusetts’ statewide goals for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, a completed life cycle cost analysis engineering study focused on the impact of replacing aging HVAC rooftop units. For the district, opting for all-electric rooftop units not only promises substantial financial benefits but also contributes significantly to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Kamala harris in a tan suit speaks to a school group
Vice President Kamala Harris (right) with students in the Denver Public Schools, which has prioritized sustainability work and cli-mate advocacy across the district. PHOTO COURTESY OF DENVER PUBLIC SCHOOLS

One major highlight is the district’s new 175,000-square foot, all-electric geothermal school building. With an ultra-efficient electric HVAC system and advanced building envelope, it is more cost-effective to operate than traditional gas-fired buildings. The large onsite solar array and battery storage system, to come online soon, aims to make the building net zero energy, providing on-site power generation to meet all the building’s energy needs without greenhouse gas emissions.

Acton-Boxborough recognizes the educational opportunities inherent to the district’s sustainability efforts and actively involves students in its initiatives. The engagement extends beyond infrastructure to include student “green teams,” compost and recyclable sorting in school cafeterias and energy tours of the all-electric geothermal school building. These hands-on learning experiences ensure a holistic approach to sustainability, shaping the mindset of future generations.

Denver Public Schools

Denver Public Schools, which serves 89,000 students across 207 schools, has emerged as a sustainability leader since establishing its sustainability team in 2009.

Initially focused on energy management and school gardens, the district has since diversified its efforts by securing funding to drive comprehensive climate action, including through grants, energy performance contracts, bonds and bond reserves.

In January, the district received funding through the EPA’s Clean School Bus program to purchase 20 new clean school buses. Its sustainability director, with more than seven years of experience leading school district change, drives this comprehensive approach.

In 2019, an energy performance contract upgraded 27 schools and implemented solar installations at 14 campuses, resulting in $1.6 million in guaranteed annual utility savings. A districtwide retrofit to LED lighting from T8 fluorescent lights saved an additional $1.5 million annually.

Utilizing 2020 bond funds, Denver Public Schools has prioritized sustainability by installing electric heat pumps at eight schools, which improves efficiency and electrifies the schools’ heating. In the district’s newest elementary school, an all-electric space and water heating system will be installed, saving the district approximately $500,000 compared to the status quo natural gas system.

Inspired by student activism, Denver’s board of education unanimously passed a climate action policy on Earth Day 2022. Spearheaded by DPS Students for Climate Action, this policy earned the students the EPA President’s Environmental Youth Award and a visit from Vice President Kamala Harris, emphasizing the significance of youth voices in climate advocacy.

Building on this student-driven policy, the sustainability team published its first Climate Action Plan in December 2022, informed by extensive internal and external outreach and prioritizing equity. The plan includes a baseline greenhouse gas emissions inventory, forming the basis for establishing reduction goals.

Recognizing the need for financial resources to achieve the plan’s goals, the sustainability team conducted a financial impact assessment, evaluating the economic implications of energy and greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies to inform capital planning.

Most recently, the sustainability team underwent a strategic reorganization, moving directly under the district’s chief of staff. This shift enhances alignment with district strategy and grants the team a more influential role in decision-making processes.

Bend-La Pine School District

Situated on the east side of the Cascade mountains, Bend-La Pine Schools, Oregon’s fifth-largest district, encompasses 38 facilities spanning, 3.1 million square feet.

Propelled by student-driven advocacy leading to the passage of a climate resolution in 2019, the district worked collaboratively with all departments and district leaders to create a comprehensive sustainability plan in 2021, which is intended to be updated every five years.

Led by the district sustainability coordinator, this strategic initiative seeks to instill a culture of sustainability and actively engage in the community’s climate mitigation efforts.

Central to the district’s efforts is the SustainBLS program, fostering educational initiatives and student-led actions. Elementary schools lead campaigns such as “Love Food Not Waste,” focusing on food waste reduction and increased composting. The campaign is reducing waste volumes, easing the workload for custodial staff and decreasing dumpster sizes and hauls. Simultaneously, students engage in educational experiences on energy reduction, solar generation and efficiency measures.

The school district amplifies its impact through emission reductions in transportation and building operations. Bend-La Pine piloted the first electric school bus east of the Cascade Mountains, acquired through an innovative electric mobility grant program. The transportation department seeks ways to expand the district fleet and route efficiency.

Leveraging renewable energy opportunities is also a priority, and, in 2021, a 56-megawatt solar array was installed on a new cafeteria roof, contributing an estimated 20 percent of the school’s total electricity usage.

To reduce energy costs, Bend-La Pine is maximizing energy efficiency by investing in improvements to building insulation, windows, lighting and heating and cooling systems. The 2022 bond program includes plans to replace inefficient 70-year-old classrooms at Bend Senior High School. The design surpasses state building codes, aiming for an energy use intensity of 25.

EUI is a commonly used measure of energy use expressed in kBtu/sf/yr. According to the EPA Energy Star Portfolio Manager dataset, the median EUI for a K-12 school is 48.5 (a lower number is more efficient).

Heathy Investments

As schools grapple with how to respond to community pressures to participate in climate action, understanding the crucial role of sustainability staff and proactive planning will help districts move forward efficiently and with clarity.

Schools nationwide will face climate-related risks and challenges, and they have the opportunity to embrace sustainable practices and data-informed decision-making. Doing so will be an investment in a healthier, more resilient future for students, staff and the planet. n

Anisa Heming is director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C.

Stewardship as an Organizational Value in Santa Fe

By Lucy C. Stanus

A woman with curly brown-gray shoulder length hair in front of a solar panel on a field wearing a brown jacket
Lucy Stanus, sustainability program director in Santa Fe, N.M., Public Schools, stands in front of Nina Otero Community School’s solar panels. PHOTO COURTESY OF LUCY STANUS

Santa Fe Public Schools has committed to modeling environmental stewardship by example. Preparing students for the future means demonstrating how to care for our community and planet.

In a community with an emerging clean energy economy and on the frontline of climate impacts, Santa Fe students must be prepared with the inspiration, knowledge and critical thinking skills required for the next generation of jobs.

Environmental ethics have long been incorporated into the multicultural framework that makes Santa Fe what is affectionately called “The City Different.” From the work of teachers and school-based staff to district administrators to a robust network of community partners, collaboration on stewardship initiatives pre-dates a formal sustainability program at the school district. Even so, the formalization of the school system’s environmental values into board of education resolutions and policy has been instrumental in catapulting organizational sustainability forward and creating an expectation of shared responsibility among everyone in the school community.

Board Policies

An energy management resolution passed by the Santa Fe school board in 2010 served as the impetus for establishing the district’s sustainability program. The resolution’s primary goals were to reduce energy use, to save operational dollars and to reduce carbon emissions.

A subsequent board policy, Organizational Sustainability through Environmental Stewardship, was adopted in 2017, further cementing principles of sustainability into every level of the organization. In 2019, the board passed another resolution, Call to Climate Action: A Resolution to Support our Youth in their Declaration of a Climate Emergency and Call for Action, which recognized the role of students in the climate crisis and supported their participation in a climate strike.

In the 14 years since the school district formally committed to environmental sustainability, Santa Fe has achieved a 28 percent reduction in electricity purchased from the grid, a 16 percent reduction in natural gas use, a 75 percent reduction in water use and a 30 percent reduction in waste sent to the landfill.

This progress has been possible due to a multifaceted approach, motivated staff members, a supportive board and dedicated funds from general obligation bonds.

Sustainability Measures

With 2.5 megawatts of solar photovoltaic generation capacity, Sante Fe Public Schools runs on more than 25 percent district-owned solar power with more capacity to come.

Solar arrays currently power 18 district buildings and were primarily constructed with funding from general obligation and clean energy revenue bonds. Students and families also advocated before their state legislators for solar at two school sites, helping the district secure capital outlay funding and proving the power of the school community at large to make a difference.

In addition to its commitment to solar energy, the school district prioritizes water conservation in the water-scarce environment of Santa Fe. Strategies include consumption monitoring, leak detection and intervention, rain garden construction, low-flow fixture conversion and underground cistern installation. Converting athletic fields to synthetic turf has also made a demonstrable impact on the district’s annual water usage.

Santa Fe has been fortunate to work with a community-based organization, Reunity Resources, which collects food waste from 23 school sites and, in turn, curbs the amount of waste sent to landfill. The food waste is converted to compost on the organization’s farm, which then supports the soil health of school gardens across the district. Other waste reduction initiatives include educational outreach, mandated single-stream recycling, electronic waste recycling and creative reuse of materials, furniture, and other assets.

To enhance sustainability, Santa Fe Public Schools developed a sustainable design standard outlining energy efficiency requirements for new construction and major renovations. This framework document provides clear communication on the intentions of the district to the construction team, design team and facility managers. This ensures the district’s built environment is both fiscally and environmentally sustainable.

Looking Forward

From a single staff member in 2010 to a team of three in 2024, the sustainability program at Santa Fe Public Schools continues to grow. To advance sustainability curriculum and instruction, a second staff position was incorporated into the program in 2017 to work directly with students and educators. This expansion led to expanded STEAM education, preparing students for the next generation of careers and strengthening operational sustainability initiatives.

In 2024, the program welcomed a third staff member whose focus is on expanding the number of students walking and biking to school each day. Through federal Transportation Alternative Program funding for a Safe Routes to School initiative, the new coordinator supports the reduction of transportation emissions and the improvement of air quality.

Meanwhile, champions across the district also share the responsibility of moving the needle on organizational sustainability by pursuing innovative and data-driven approaches within their own areas of expertise in support of our planet, community and student learning.

Lucy Stanus is sustainability program director in Santa Fe Public Schools in Santa Fe, N.M.

Additional Resources

Education leaders lean on many informational and financial resources to accomplish sustainability goals. Federal funding, in particular, is more available now than any time previously.

Learn the ropes:

  • The Center for Green Schools offers resources for implementing environmental health and sustainability programs at school districts, including online education, peer learning networks and in-person events. The center also supports the U.S. Department of Energy’s Efficient and Healthy Schools Program, which provides recognition and free technical assistance to school districts.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration actively manages a U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit for public use, which walks through the steps to assess and act to mitigate climate risks. The Aspen Institute’s This is Planet Ed initiative has created several toolkits specifically for K-12 leaders.
  • World Resources Institute launched the Electric School Bus Initiative in 2020 to build momentum for making U.S. school busses electric. The website offers guidance for school communities.

Regional coordination:

  • NOAA’s Climate Resilience Regional Challenge recipients will be announced this summer. As with EPA, future funding will reference regional planning. School districts should reach out to the state and local grant recipients to be included in the process.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Pollution Reduction Grants support communities in climate resilience planning.

Funding applications:

  • EPA has opened a notice of funding opportunity for the Community Change Grants to provide resources for local projects to “reduce pollution, increase community climate resilience, and build community capacity to address environmental and climate justice challenges.” School districts are ideal applicants and have until November 2024 to apply.
  • The Department of Energy this spring will open up a second round of funding through its popular Renew America’s Schools grants, funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will fund energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at school buildings.
  • EPA’s Clean School Bus program offers rebates and grants for electric and low-emission school buses, using $5 billion in funding allocated through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The program releases funding opportunities each year and advertises them through its website and newsletter.
  • The “elective pay” option of the Clean Energy Investment Tax Credits is available when schools invest in ground source heat pumps, solar energy and storage, or electric vehicle charging infrastructure. A school district, as a tax-exempt entity, can get a direct payment from the U.S. Treasury as a portion of their investment in these technologies, and there is no limit to the amount that can be paid through these tax credits.
—  Anisa Heming


Anisa Heming


Center for Green Schools, Washington, D.C.