Bringing Green Together: Sustainability Management Systems Unite School Sustainability Efforts
School districts across the country have been making great strides in their greening efforts, from constructing more efficient buildings and integrating sustainability in the curriculum to promoting renewable energy and recycling. What many school districts still lack, however, is a shared vision, set of goals, strategies, and implementation path to drive all of their sustainability initiatives in the same direction – using a whole-school and whole-district approach that engages students, staff and teachers working for a common, more sustainable future along the way. Enter the sustainability management system, or “SMS”.
What exactly is an SMS? In its simplest form, an SMS can be considered an integrated, cross-departmental, whole-district approach to sustainability. But rather than being embodied in a stand-alone, more traditional sustainability management plan document that sits on a shelf, an SMS consists of all of the parts and pieces that make sustainability actually happen on the ground – from the process of collecting performance data and measuring progress to the actions of individual departments to work toward sustainability goals. Built on a dynamic, cyclical planning platform of “plan-do-check-act” and informed by The Natural Step sustainability framework, SMSs can perhaps best be viewed as providing both a “compass” – a framework for where a school district wants to go along with a “ship” – the vehicle for getting there.
Creating an SMS involves a collaborative, multi-step process that typically includes an executive steering committee, small group interviews, and district-wide surveys to collect input. One of the first steps districts typically take is to establish a baseline of resource use and existing sustainability practices, often accompanied by a greenhouse gas inventory and a process to benchmark its performance against other schools.
Following this step, a District may develop a shared, whole-district vision or policy to capture its future aspirations for sustainability along with specific short- and long-term goals for its priority topic areas such as water, energy, curriculum, transportation or others. Specific strategies are then identified to work toward its goals, which can include costs and benefits, responsible parties, metrics for measuring success and community partners. Finally, a monitoring component is established that will allow a district to track its progress toward its goals over time. All of this is captured in a document that provides a roadmap for the SMS, but it’s the on-the-ground systems and actions in each District department that actually make sustainability happen.
The benefits of SMSs to school districts are many-fold. Not only do they help drive planning and action for sustainability, they also inspire whole district commitment by creating a shared vision and goals. In day-to-day operations, they provide a process for identifying strategies that can lead to significant cost savings, from using resources such as energy more efficiently to identifying synergies among programs. As a result of implementing SMSs, school districts have been able to drive down energy and water use and costs in schools, reduce fuel use in their fleets, lower life-cycle costs, cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce solid waste – all while integrating these successes with curriculum, employee training and engagement, health and wellness and cultivating a culture of stewardship.
For the past five years Colorado has been a hub of progress for school district SMSs. Northern Colorado’s Poudre School District pioneered the process in 2006 when it completed its first SMS, followed shortly thereafter by its first annual sustainability report. Since then several other school districts have followed in their footsteps, including the Boulder Valley School District, Academy District 20 in Colorado Springs and now – funded by a grant from the Colorado Governor’s Energy Office (GEO) – Denver Public Schools. The GEO has also engaged several smaller school districts throughout Colorado in developing SMSs.
With its SMS now in place for five years, Colorado’s Poudre School District exemplifies just how beneficial SMSs can be to districts. The District has achieved over 120 Energy Star awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its holistic approach to District energy efficiency, along the way realizing a cumulative savings in electrical and natural gas costs of over $2 million through 2010.
Due to these savings, the district has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions 1,300 tons compared to 2005 baseline figures. School wellness programs now connect students with gardens where they can learn about the production of food utilizing the outdoors as a classroom. Department leaders encourage holistic leadership with students on recycling efforts, turning off lights, and engaging in other practices – helping to encourage their peers to do the same and increasing student participation in sustainability. For the 2010-2011 school year, the district’s transportation department worked with schools to change arrival and dismissal times, allowing the department to reduce its bus routes from 139 to 112, leading to a reduction in vehicle miles and associated greenhouse gas emissions and promising long-term benefits such as cutbacks in the need for capital outlay for replacement buses. These are just a few of the many benefits that have accumulated to the District over the years since developing its SMS.
While all of these accomplishments are significant, it is perhaps the less-tangible whole-organization shift toward sustainability through the SMS that is most compelling. Over the past five years the Poudre School District has seen many of its employees turn from skeptics to active participants in the SMS. The District’s painting crews, for example, have discovered that using paints without volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in classrooms not only benefits the health of the students and teachers, [but also] cut down the need to run HVAC systems to flush out VOCs, reducing classroom downtime and HVAC energy use.
The District - which used the help of outside consultants to jump start its SMS and annual sustainability report – is now thriving from a self-sustaining, internally guided SMS and annual reporting process through the building of its internal capacity over time. Such revelations and transformations could only come about through the active, cross-department dialogue and capacity building facilitated by the District’s SMS.
So why haven’t more schools implemented this innovative, holistic approach to sustainability? Partly it’s a matter of sharing lessons learned and spreading the word about the benefits of SMSs to other districts, but it’s also about committing to a long-term organizational shift in the way a District does business. But, as Colorado’s Poudre School District can attest, it’s a journey well worth the commitment.
David Wortman is a Program Manager for Colorado-based Brendle Group, an engineering and sustainability consulting group that works with schools on their sustainability efforts (www.brendlegroup.com). David is also a freelance writer who has worked with National Geographic, Sierra, Mother Earth News, High Country News, E Magazine and several other publications.
More Resources and Information
Poudre School District Sustainability Management System: www.psd.k12.co.us/about-us/district-operations/sustainability
Denver Public Schools Sustainability Management Plan: http://sustainability.dpsk12.org/management_plan
Boulder Valley School District Sustainability Management System: http://bvsd.org/green/Pages/sms.aspx