Cutting Costs

Jan. 1, 2003
Here are 10 ways schools and universities might be able to get more out of their budgets.

Every day, it seems, the news from state capitals carries an ominous message for schools and universities. Revenues are down, coffers are empty, and schools will have to cut back spending to stay within their budgets.

For most institutions, that means searching for ways to cut costs and save money in areas that don't affect a school's primary role: educating students. Many schools can unearth savings by taking advantage of technological advancements, more efficient equipment and supplies, and smarter ways of managing their resources. Here are 10 ways schools and universities might be able to get more out of their budgets:

Energy upgrades

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that schools could save $1.5 billion in energy costs by making better energy choices. Altering behavior — turning off lights in unoccupied areas and shutting down unused computers — can save money; installing more energy-efficient equipment also can slice energy bills. Replacing an antiquated, inefficient heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system with a modern system reduces maintenance costs and lowers long-term energy costs. According to the Energy Department, the typical energy cost for a school is 90 cents per square foot per year; the potential energy cost for a school designed to be energy efficient is 45 cents to 68 cents per square foot per year.

Schools that can't afford the initial expense of new equipment often use performance contracting to partner with energy service companies. The company pays the initial cost of an upgrade, and the school pays for the new system with the savings generated.

Security technology

Continuing technological advancements and lower costs mean that more schools can afford high-tech solutions to security problems. Surveillance equipment such as closed-circuit cameras, access-control systems, metal detectors and alarms can help many schools provide a safer environment for their students and staff without breaking their budgets. Advancements such as digital video recording allow schools to record and archive their surveillance without having to label and store space-gobbling videocassettes.

These security products “can provide school administrators or security officials with information that would not otherwise be available, free up manpower for more appropriate work, or be used to perform mundane tasks,” says a National Institute of Justice report, “The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools.” “Sometimes they can save a school money (compared with the cost of personnel or the cost impact of not preventing a particular incident).”

Maintenance Management Systems (MMS)

Many schools are using technology to help them run and monitor the maintenance programs in their facilities more efficiently. A maintenance management system allows maintenance workers to keep track of ongoing work orders, job costs, preventive-maintenance schedules, and equipment and supply inventory. It also can provide a historical record of completed work.

The first computerized MMS products were stand-alone software packages that required education institutions to have sufficient computer capacity and technological know-how. More recently, MMS packages have become available through application service providers (ASPs), in which a service provider uses its computers to maintain computer applications and institution data, and school maintenance workers connect to the system over the Internet.


If you can't afford it yourself, find someone to split the cost with you. As schools confront the growing problem of aging facilities and insufficient space, more administrators are embracing partnerships as a solution to tight capital budgets. To save funds and maximize use of public facilities, schools have teamed up with park districts, libraries and municipalities on construction projects. Once completed, the school shares the facilities with its community partner.

“The provision of more and better services to the community is often the greatest benefit of joint use,” says a report from New Schools/Better Neighborhoods, a California group that seeks better connections between schools and communities. “The services may be providing after-school use of school playgrounds, theaters and libraries. Schools get the use of fields and other athletic facilities, theaters and libraries during school hours.”

More budget-saving ideas

Modernized washrooms

Upgrading the equipment and fixtures in school washrooms can lessen the burden on a school budget by reducing water usage and discouraging costly vandalism. Waterless urinals, low-flow toilets, automatic flushing devices and sensor-controlled fixtures can help reduce the costs of water consumption as well as provide a cleaner environment. Low-flow devices can reduce water consumption by 15 to 20 percent, and can pay for themselves in saved energy in four to eight months, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

The water saved from modern equipment could go right down the drain again if a school's plumbing system is plagued by leaks. A maintenance staff that is vigilant about detecting and repairing leaks can reduce a school's water waste significantly.


Schools that upgrade the window systems they have and add more windows to their facilities can save money by spending less on lighting, as well as heating and cooling. Installing more energy-efficient windows can reduce energy bills by keeping outside elements — excessive heat or cold — from entering the building and causing more strain on a heating or cooling system.

Having more windows in a facility can allow a school to depend more on daylighting and less on artificial lighting that adds to electricity bills. A well-designed daylighted environment should eliminate glare and prevent overheating. It should allow users to adjust the artificial lighting as needed through dimmer switches or automatic photocell controls.

Facilities assessment

Schools that have accurate information about the condition and needs of their facilities are in a better position to spend money on capital improvements more efficiently. Facility assessment firms can help schools and universities assemble an accurate and up-to-date database of an institution's infrastructure so administrators can determine more precisely how much needed improvements will cost.

In the Richardson School District outside Dallas, officials brought in a facilities consultant that helped it assess all its buildings and provide a roadmap for future renovation and construction. The assessments helped the district persuade voters in 2001 to pass a $351 million bond issue for facility improvements.


Many schools and universities find that they can save money by contracting out certain services and operations to private companies. Whether outsourcing will be more cost-effective than self-operation will depend on factors that vary from service to service and from institution to institution. Some schools have efficient in-house operations in place and would not benefit from privatization.

Many schools have brought in private contractors to run their transportation services, food preparation and custodial operations. On college campuses, it's not uncommon to have private companies manage bookstores, laundry services, food services and vending. In American School & University's most recent survey on privatization in 2001, schools and colleges reported that the top reasons they turned to privatized services included cost containment, time savings, professional management and better equipment.

Alternative fuels

According to U.S. energy officials, many school districts spend more transporting students to and from school than in meeting the energy needs of their school buildings. Using vehicles that run on alternative fuels or electricity can help an institution reduce fuel costs as well as pollution. Compressed natural gas (CNG) often is recommended for schools because the vehicles are readily available and the fuel is considerably less expensive than gasoline.

The San Marcos (Calif.) Unified School District began in 1999 to use buses that run on compressed natural gas. It found that the CNG-fueled buses cost 12 cents a mile compared with 32 cents a mile for diesel-powered buses.

Electric-powered school buses are not practical in most cases, but schools and universities can take advantage of small maintenance carts and other electric-powered vehicles that are available.

Building commissioning

When a newly constructed school fails to meet expectations, administrators — and taxpayers — often are the ones who have to address the unexpected repair and replacement costs. Building commissioning begins in the pre-design phase and continues through design, construction and the warranty period to ensure that building systems perform as intended. It verifies the performance of the building's systems through review, testing and documentation.

“A properly commissioned school can result in fewer change orders during the construction process, fewer callbacks, long-term occupant satisfaction, lower energy bills and avoided equipment-replacement costs,” says the National Best Practices Manual for Building High Performance Schools, compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy's Rebuild America program.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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