Funding solutions that impact equity in education

ABM helps Pennsylvania district with plan to save millions in energy and operating costs
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019 | Case Study
October 21, 2019

Connellsville Area School District near Pittsburgh had a three-year strategic financial recovery plan, which includes closing schools, to address declining enrollment, reduced state and federal funding, and other issues.

Superintendent Phil Martell needed a way to ensure that students and families affected by school closures were going to benefit, as equity in education depends on the quality of school facilities and up-to-date technology. Connellsville had no extra operations budget or debt service available to meet those key needs.

“We looked at the infrastructure itself, and it was consuming too much,” says Martell. “Utility costs, that’s money leaving the school. So I needed to change how resources were consumed to better benefit our kids.”

Saving money

To support his plan, Martell met with ABM to help him understand the possibilities for change.

Martell and others at Connellsville saw that they could save money by eliminating waste, fixing facility problems and building effectiveness through ABM’s data and financial analysis tools.

“This partnership with ABM gives us the stability to move ahead with an education component that a lot of public education institutions cannot manage due to funding cuts.”

“Our debt margin was fully consumed, and we had no ability to increase taxpayer burden,” Martell says. “But I had to go to these parents, these communities, and show them that this would be better for their kids.”

Investing in facility upgrades

Step one for Connellsville was developing a plan for upgrading facilities that would improve conditions for students and faculty while also reducing operating costs. Step two was the financial solution that made those changes possible.

Using the custom financial solution built by ABM, district leaders were able to invest in better facilities without new bonds or taxes. Over a 15-year period, they expect to save $26.4 million in energy and operating costs for Connellsville schools.

Consensus solution

The facility upgrades included LED retrofits, new and refurbished heating and cooling equipment, and smart building controls. School windows, ducts, and roofs were improved. By combining those energy efficiency initiatives and additional water conservation measures, the project yielded enough savings to meet Connellsville’s goal of Wi-Fi in every school and a Chromebook for every student.

“This partnership with ABM gives us the stability to move ahead with an education component that a lot of public education institutions cannot manage due to funding cuts,” Martell says. “A project like this provides us the ability to make education upgrades we may not have been able to do otherwise because of a lack of funding. There are a lot of districts that may not be able to take on a project like putting devices in students’ hands immediately, but they can do it with the right help.”

Finding the right tools to address K-12 facility and utility costs

School leaders can ensure students benefit more by consuming resources differently

Q&A with Dan Dowell,
Senior Vice President of Education Solutions,

What are some current financial challenges school districts face?
While some school funding has recovered in recent years, it has not led to equal improvements in school funding nationwide. Lack of equity in funding is leading to imbalances, including issues with teacher pay and a lack of capital for meeting the physical health and technological needs of a productive learning environment. Unequal funding, due in large part to the continuing reliance of school budgets on local taxes, is the subject of legislative and legal fights nationwide. Local district leaders seek tools to address funding issues and achieve equity for students.

How can districts benefit students more despite financial constraints?
When resources are limited, how they’re used makes all the difference. For schools, that means taking a hard look at how spending benefits students. The superintendents’ strategy is to keep value from leaving the learning environment so that it can be redirected to creating benefits for the school. By demanding measurable accountability for noninstructional spending, district leaders open up ways to achieve more equity in education.

“By demanding measurable accountability for noninstructional spending, district leaders open up ways to achieve more equity in education.”

How can schools achieve more benefits for students?
A comprehensive strategy is required to change how schools consume resources. This requires expertise and experience in multiple disciplines, from engineering and facilities technology to financial solutions. Building consensus for change depends on the practical experience of school partners in joining these disciplines together in service of education. School leaders should insist that partners focus on finding improvements that truly benefit students and the environment and that help pay for themselves—not on pitching an improvement and finding a way to pay for it.

Where should districts look for opportunities to improve facilities for all their students?
After personnel, the next highest costs for school districts are facility and utility costs. A comprehensive analysis looks at operations and capital needs and examines data over time to identify spending trends and long-term needs. It accounts for costs holistically, including capital risk, lost productivity and administration. With a full picture of operations spending in place, a plan to achieve change without burdening tighter budgets can be built. A holistic look at operations and facilities is needed to go from targeting savings to creating opportunities to protect and reinvest in key benefits for districts.

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