Easing Pressure on School Budgets Through Energy Education
After months of social distancing, shutdowns, and school closures, at least one point of consensus emerged: teaching is hard work. The talent and expertise required to educate students in the best of times – let alone amid a pandemic – have been laid bare for countless families, and a recent poll showed that nearly 80% of parents now believe teachers deserve a raise. Unfortunately, this upswell of support will soon collide with historic budget shortfalls. Approximately 90% of school funding comes from state and local coffers which, unlike the federal government, are bound by their budgets. With tax revenues projected to plunge, experts expect education funding to drop by 15-25%.
These cuts will place an extraordinary burden on schools and could impact educational outcomes for years to come—particularly in underserved communities which have been hardest hit by the virus’ economic fallout and have the fewest resources to respond. Solutions to this crisis must come from many corners, but one resource teachers and students can tap into is energy efficiency.
Energy literacy programs present schools with both educational and financial opportunities. When schools do return to in-person instruction, utility costs will continue to be their second largest expenditure behind only personnel. Nationally, K-12 schools spend approximately $6 billion per year on energy, but approximately 25% of those costs could be saved through energy-efficient practices. Energy literacy programs translate STEM learning into hands-on projects that can significantly reduce that energy waste. The record speaks for itself: the Alliance’s PowerSave programs reduce energy use in participating schools by an average of 5-15%, leading to thousands of dollars in savings.
Christos Chrysiliou, director of architecture and engineering services for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) – the nation’s second largest district and a participant in the PowerSave program – sees efficiency as a critical step toward the district’s sustainability plan.
“Empowering our students with the knowledge and tools to achieve this plan is important in laying the foundation of a sustainable and resilient future. In return, this will help offset our utility costs and allocate more money to the classroom,” Christos said.
Even for a much smaller district, like the two-school Mount Arlington Public Schools in New Jersey, efficiency savings add up to $11,000 annually. These savings come from no-cost behavior change, fueled by student leadership and increased awareness of energy efficiency principles. Beyond financial savings, Mount Arlington STEM Coordinator Julie Crawford noted that the experience “let the kids discover that they, too, can be agents of change.”
Energy literacy programs help address another need raised by the current crisis: the need for community. Efficiency is an inherently collaborative effort, requiring students and teachers to engage their whole school communities – peers, administrators, facilities, and custodial staff. It is strengthened by a broadening circle of participation, including students’ families, friends, and communities. Lee Kessner, a teacher at Haskell Elementary STEAM Magnet in LAUSD, observed that as students explore their energy use, they “begin to think about the larger picture and how their actions affect others, and empathy ensues.”
Finally, if any mission can animate all the members of our communities during these challenging times, it is the need to support our teachers as they have supported us. Anne-Marie Peracchio, director of conservation and clean energy for New Jersey Natural Gas and a longtime champion of K-12 energy education, sees students’ energy-saving efforts as driving a virtuous cycle, sharing that, “hearing stories of how saving on energy bills can fund more direct education expenditures can inspire others to reduce their energy usage as well.”
The benefits and shared purpose of energy efficiency extend beyond the classroom and the current crisis, but it has never been more needed in our schools today.