Tax bases eroding. Jobs disappearing. Endowments shrinking. Aid evaporating. That's been the story in 2009 for many schools and universities across the nation. Education institutions have had to cope with the worst economic conditions in generations. Yet the product they provide has never been more critical to a society looking to rebound from financial catastrophe. Even with their resources depleted, schools and universities must press on in their efforts to provide a high-quality education to millions of students.
So when administrators, facility managers and educators envision the path to a successful 2010, they may have to redefine what constitutes a success in such challenging conditions. In a climate of cutbacks, doing more with less may be unattainable, but education institutions should strive to do as much as they can with the resources they do have:
For most schools, the question is not whether they have to cut spending, but by how much. The revenue streams for public schools — property taxes and state aid — are flowing more slowly. Public colleges and universities also are suffering from the drop in state funding, as well as the losses from shrinking endowments and fewer donations. Money from the federal stimulus has eased the pain for some institutions, but at this point, the funding has not sparked a recovery as much as it has prevented even more disastrous consequences for education.
Schools and universities have had to scale back their ambitions and try to cut spending in a way that doesn't damage the quality of education. Institutions facing such financial difficulties in 2010 may have to adopt some of the approaches other schools and universities have already taken.
Several states have raised the possibility of consolidating smaller districts in an effort to use resources more efficiently. Some districts have looked at shortening the school day or increasing the average class size to conserve funds. Arizona has cut funding for textbooks and classroom supplies. Michigan State University has proposed eliminating two departments to save money. In Los Angeles and St. Louis, workers are taking unpaid furlough days to ease budget deficits.
One cutback that has not gone over well is cutting instructional time. Hawaii decided to cancel classes on 17 Fridays to save money, but the action drew criticism from many, including U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. State officials soon were working to come up with a plan to restore most of the instructional time.
If the 2010 theme for budget-conscious schools and universities is to try to do more with less, technology will be a key element to make that possible. In the 1990s, politicians talked about computers and Internet connections as integral elements in building a bridge to the 21st century. Now, nearly a decade after that bridge was crossed, technology has become an inescapable component of the education experience in elementary, secondary and post-secondary classrooms.
When designed well and used properly, new technologies can provide students with a better learning experience: easier access to more information delivered in more stimulating ways. Many classrooms are equipped with interactive whiteboards that soup up the age-old concept of the chalkboard with the depth of worldwide resources found on the Internet. Personal response devices, known more commonly as "clickers," enable teachers to solicit immediate answers and feedback on lessons from students.
Technology is second nature to most of today's students, and schools and universities can take advantage by providing materials and instruction using the systems and gadgets familiar to students.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project, in a 2008 survey, estimated that 71 percent of U.S. teenagers had a cell phone. Some schools still restrict student use of cell phones because of the potential for misuse and classroom disruption, but other educators, noting how integral cell phones have become in the life of the typical teenager, are embracing the devices to aid in school work.
In addition to sending and receiving voice and text messages to communicate with teachers and among each other, students can use the many features of the cell phones to take photographs, record sound or, in some cases, conduct Internet searches. Lectures and other class notes can be recorded for students to download onto their iPods and mp3 players.
The push to build and operate education facilities more efficiently continues to gain momentum, spurred by concerns about the environment and a desire to spend money in a way that benefits schools most effectively in the long term. The pursuit of sustainable, high-performance schools can influence numerous decisions involving facilities and operations.
Many state and local governments have adopted design standards for new facilities that call for the use of sustainable strategies. Education institutions that seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for their buildings or follow the best practices put forth by the Collaborative for High Performance Schools are able to produce facilities that use less energy and less water, and provide spaces that are more suitable for learning.
Higher-education institutions that are seeking ways to become more sensitive to how their campuses interact with the environment and the threats of global warming can join the more than 660 institutions that have signed The American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. Those schools have a goal of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions they produce and, in the long term, achieving climate neutrality.
HEALTH & SAFETY
Schools and universities must continue to be vigilant about protecting the health and safety of their students and staff. That means designing instructional spaces that have good acoustics, appropriate lighting and suitable ventilation. It also means using materials low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) so that potentially dangerous emissions are not released into the air.
The way schools clean their facilities can become a problem if the process of cleaning introduces chemicals or other materials that can imperil the health of building occupants. Green-cleaning programs that use environmentally safe materials and equipment can help schools and universities maintain sanitary conditions without harming the indoor environmental quality.
Education institutions also can help students improve their health by offering more nutritious food in cafeterias and dining halls. Many schools and universities have improved their menus by offering more fruits, vegetables and other healthful items. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the consumption of candy, chips and soda pop in schools had declined as schools have adopted better nutritional guidelines for the items they offer.
Some health advocates are seeking a stronger push for more healthful school meals. A committee of the Institute of Medicine recommended earlier this year that the federal government place calorie limits on meals served through the National School Lunch Program.
Conserving energy has been a growing priority for education institutions for many years. In a depressed economic climate, eliminating wasteful consumption of resources is even more critical for schools and universities trying to direct the maximum amount of funding to instruction.
Numerous state and federal programs are in place to help education institutions cut energy costs and switch to more efficient and environmentally friendly ways of providing the power needed to run their facilities. In California, the state's energy commission has created the Bright School Program to help K-12 schools find ways to use energy more wisely. Also in California, the Alliance to Save Energy has established a Green Campus Program at 13 campuses in the state's university system. It seeks to educate campus communities about energy conservation and develop and carry out energy-savings policies.
In addition, schools can enter into performance contracts with energy service companies that help identify and carry out energy-saving opportunities on campuses. The companies' efforts are paid for with the savings generated.
Budget managers facing the difficult task of cutting spending may be tempted to put off facility maintenance. Deferring work may be unavoidable in times of tight budgets, but schools and universities should be vigilant that short-term decisions don't ossify into long-term policies that result in insurmountable backlogs and deteriorating facilities.
Computerized maintenance-management systems enable workers to keep accurate records of maintenance cycles, which jobs have been scheduled and when they have been completed, and which work should have priority. Such systems enable maintenance departments to make job decisions based on objective data, rather than who is complaining the loudest or who has the right political connections.
Regardless of the state of the economy, millions of students fill the classrooms and hallways of the nation's schools, and the threat of crime and violence is present, just as it is in society at large. Parents send their children to school with the expectation that officials are vigilant about protecting them from harm.
Education institutions can address campus safety through a combination of prevention and awareness programs, the visible presence of police and security officers, design strategies that can deter crime, and technological aids that expand the school administration's ability to watch over students, staff and school property.
Methods once thought of as extravagant, such as installing a comprehensive array of security cameras on the grounds of a campus, have become more sophisticated, yet more affordable than the ungainly equipment available a few years ago. Most schools and universities have technological networks already in place that can accommodate video surveillance functions.
Financial limitations may prevent a school or university from reaching the heights it envisions for itself, but administrators should make sure they have a plan in place when more resources are available. As the Philadelphia school district stated in a five-year strategic plan it unveiled earlier this year, "One important constraint on 'blue-sky thinking' is the prospect of 'red ink' in the school district budget."
Philadelphia's strategic plan, "Imagine 2014," is based on five goals: student success, quality choices, great staff, accountable adults and world-class operations.
The last section addresses facilities. It calls for the district to ensure that "all buildings and grounds are clean, attractive, and properly maintained in a manner conducive to effective teaching and learning," and that the district has "the right number of facilities, in the right locations … with the appropriate instructional layouts that ensure efficiency, effectiveness, and a positive learning environment."
Students in the typical classroom no longer just sit passively and listen to an instructor. They may gather at tables in small groups, or tap away on keyboards at computer stations or laptop machines. School administrators need to take into account the changing configurations of learning spaces as they choose furniture and equipment.
Students and workers forced to use ill-fitting furniture over time can be subject to problems such as eye strain, backaches and repetitive stress injuries. Because the size of students assigned to a classroom can vary greatly, schools need to have furniture that can be adjusted to accommodate the dimensions of many users.
When a person is going through hard times, it's helpful to reach out to friends that can provide help. Education institutions that are having to make do with less and the communities they serve each can benefit by sharing resources with each other. Schools and universities that have already established these connections with their neighbors are more likely to have the relationships in place that can lead to mutually beneficial sharing of facilities and resources.
Many school systems have designed their facilities so that community members have access to gymnasiums, media centers or auditoriums when classes are not in session. Others have saved their taxpayers money by constructing joint facilities with cities or counties.
Kennedy can be reached at [email protected].