In times of tight budgets, study finds school districts can save big bucks and energy
Sociology | March 21, 2011
Story from Today @ Colorado State
Is it possible to build and operate
school buildings that create dynamic teaching spaces for kids, conserve
energy and cost less? Yes: A new study from CSU found that Poudre School
District in Fort Collins did just that.
Poudre School District has adopted a complete, top-to-bottom approach to
sustainability and is now saving roughly more than $1 million per year.
Schools across the nation face serious budget deficits, and in most
public schools, energy costs are the second largest expense after
employee salaries. Efforts to reduce these costs often are focused on
building standards and new technologies. Jennifer Cross, assistant
professor of sociology at CSU, led a research team that looked beyond
these traditional ideas to determine how schools can change their energy
use habits through cultural change within the organization.
Three key factors
Researchers ultimately identified three main factors that allowed the
district to develop a conservation-oriented culture: organizational
change, appropriate framing and network collaboration.
Since 2000, Poudre School District (PSD) has constructed six new energy
efficient schools – Zach, Bacon, Fossil Ridge, Kinard, Rice and Bethke -
one office building, and has made significant improvements to the
efficiency of existing buildings. The district has received more than 30
awards recognizing its commitment to sustainability and energy
conservation in buildings. On average, PSD spends 37 percent fewer
dollars per year on energy expenses than other Colorado school
“This is a significant cost savings that is truly the result of the
district’s firm commitment to sustainability,” Cross said. “The district
is literally using less energy and spending hundreds of thousands of
dollars less than other districts. When budgets are tight as they are,
other school districts need to pay attention to how PSD was able to
accomplish this. In fact, what happened in Poudre School District was
inspired by budgets being a problem a decade ago. ”
Fostering a conservation culture
In the report, “Organizational Innovation for Energy Conservation: A
Case Study of Poudre School District,” the research team discusses how
the district fosters a culture of sustainability. The report also offers
recommendations for all school districts and organizations looking to
enhance energy conservation efforts.
The research team found that, during the past decade, the district
experienced a number of organizational changes that together created a
conservation-oriented culture. In 1999, the district established the
Green Team, a group of representatives from Facilities Services,
Business Services and various external organizations. The Green Team was
charged with researching sustainable and energy efficient building
technologies to be applied in the district.
“PSD is a sustainability leader because it made a commitment to
sustainability and underwent a complete organizational transformation
that began with adopting a sustainability mission that integrated care
for financial resources, care for the planet and care for kids and
learning,” Cross said.
Eight steps to conservation-oriented culture
Based on their study of Poudre School District, the researchers
identified eight steps an organization should follow to create a
- Change the mindset;
- Establish a team;
- Create a clear vision;
- Communicate the vision;
- Empower the team;
- Use early success to continue the process;
- Learn from mistakes; and
- Embed sustainability into daily practices.
Another important factor in the organizational change was the framing
used for the issue. At first, PSD’s Green Team found that many people
were averse to words such as “green” or “sustainable.” However, that
didn’t mean they lacked concern about energy use or environmental
impact. The Green Team successfully re-framed the issue to address
financial, environmental, educational and professional concerns.
Sustainable building projects were eventually referred to as
“high-performance buildings” or “high-performance design.”
The researchers emphasized the use of interpersonal networks as the
third aspect of the school district’s organizational change.
Collaboration within the district, through the Green Team, and with
external partners created learning opportunities and fostered support
for greater innovation than would otherwise have been possible. External
partners, such as the Governor’s Energy Office, Fort Collins Utilities
and the Brendle Group, provided valuable insight and information to
district employees as well as to employees who connected with other
districts and product manufacturers.
“PSD was able to build innovative and energy-efficient buildings
because they developed systems that support continuous learning inside
and outside the organization,” Cross said.
Now that the district has successfully fostered a culture of
conservation, they are examining how to expand on these ideas. The
research team has provided three main recommendations for making the
sustainability mission more widespread: further engage teachers,
institutionalize the process and expand outreach efforts.
Cross and her colleagues suggest further inclusion of parents, students
and teachers on the design team to enhance involvement by all school
district stakeholders. These groups were involved in the success of the
2000 bond design, and their continued and further integration is
encouraged in the 2010 bond and school-based conservation efforts.
Another suggestion is the creation of a specific Green Team within the
In 2006, the district adopted a “Sustainable Management System”
developed by the district in collaboration with the Brendle Group. This
system provides a framework for the institutionalization of these energy
and building improvements into everyday operations by tracking
sustainability goals and encouraging new goals.
The 2011 Green Team is currently meeting to research and develop
solutions for the building and renovation projects included in the 2010
bond. The district is looking for opportunities to reach their solid
waste and greenhouse gas reduction goals and continue to minimize
This research project was funded by the CSU Clean Energy Supercluster.
Cross’ team included Zinta S. Byrne, associate professor of psychology
at CSU; Michelle Lueck, CSU doctoral candidate in sociology; Bill
Franzen, president of Sage 2 Associates; and Stu Reeve, energy manager
for the Poudre School District.
Contact: Kimberly Sorensen