Why (Green) Schools Matter

Why (Green) Schools Matter

As this column was being written, Senate and House conferees were ironing out the final version of the stimulus bill. An unresolved issue is funding for school construction and related technology improvements -- the House bill provided $21 billion, $15 billion of it for grades K-12; the Senate provided no funding.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine was one of the senators who called for axing school construction from the stimulus bill, calling it a worthwhile objective but saying that building and renovating schools didn't create jobs and was misplaced in the economic recovery measure. I often admire Senator Collins, but not this time. School construction carries a significant jobs impact. First, school construction spending is disseminated broadly throughout the U.S. Second, school construction creates jobs in the building sector, which has borne the brunt of American job losses since 2007 and is suffering double-digit unemployment. Further, school construction spending creates jobs not only in the construction trades, but also in architecture, interior design, engineering and landscaping. And many of these jobs are green-an increasing number of schools are being certified under the LEED for Schools protocol and designed and developed under green schools initiatives sponsored by the Alliance to Save Energy, the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, the Green Schools Alliance and others.

But job creation isn't the only benefit from green schools construction. Recent national metrics on the costs and benefits of green schools are extremely positive. The October 2006 report, "Greening America's Schools: Costs and Benefits," evaluated the green building experiences of 30 schools in 10 states from 2001-2006. Positive outcomes associated with green schools include:

Energy Savings. The 30 schools evaluated reported a 33.4 percent average annual energy savings from going green.
Water Savings. The 30 schools reported an average annual reduction in water usage by 32.1 percent.
Reductions in Climate Change Emissions. Greening America's Schools estimated that a green school building, on average, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 587,500 pounds (293.5 tons) per year, as well as reducing emissions of smog-causing particulate matter by 150 pounds per year.
Student, Faculty and Staff Health Benefits. A growing body of evidence suggests that green buildings reduce absenteeism from such common maladies as asthma, colds and flu. Case studies cited by Greening America's Schools put reductions in the 15 percent range. Carnegie Mellon University's review of 5 national workplace studies put green-building related asthma reduction at 38.5 percent. One of ten children in the U.S. suffers asthma. A broader review of 17 studies by Carnegie Mellon found an average occupant health improvement of 41 percent in green buildings.
Student, Faculty and Staff Productivity Benefits. Green buildings have also been associated with heightened teacher retention (up 5 percent in a Washington State study). Improved student attendance (reported improvements of 15 percent in Oregon and Washington State case studies) and test scores (3 percent-4 percent in Washington, D.C. and Chicago; 19 percent in Clearview, Pennsylvania) also have been associated with green schools. In Statesville, North Carolina, the percentage of elementary school children reading at grade level increased from 60 percent to over 80 percent after the children were placed in a new, green school.

All told, Greening America's Schools found that energy and water savings over a presumed 20 year holding period had an average net present value of $9.84 per square foot, more than three times the $3 per square foot average cost premium to build green. The energy and water savings alone were paid back within six years.

These investment metrics are compelling: New school construction is a good bet for job creation and student achievement, and green school construction is even better. Let's hope that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle catch on sooner rather than later.

Leanne Tobias is founder and principal of Malachite LLC, an advisory firm that specializes in the development, leasing, management, financing and certification of sustainable or green real estate on a global basis. Write to Leanne about your thoughts on jumpstarting the economy at [email protected]. She'll share the best ideas in future posts.