Years ago, while I was serving as buildings and grounds supervisor in the Sparta school district, we introduced mandatory recycling in our classrooms. Some welcomed the idea, and some not so much – but the new, colored garbage can encouraged some students, teachers and administrators to get involved.

Environmental student groups then sprang up, and expanded the effort further. Eventually, recycling became the norm, and most in our district embraced the practice that led our first steps into sustainability.

Sustainability is something that has moved into public schools, and for good reason. The organizing principle is sustainable development, which involves the four interconnected domains of ecology, economics, politics and culture.

But how does it fit into the day-to-day operations of your district? Here are the top ten questions about sustainability that board members, facilities directors, and anyone on your sustainability team should consider:

  1. What is the facilities director’s role in sustainability? It’s a large role, and it’s a role that’s changed a great deal. When I started in this job, I was wearing a tool pouch. Then came code updates, and sustainability, and the job has grown way beyond the tool pouch. We’re involved in a lot more things now – the energy management side, the recycling side, green cleaning, running the building. Superintendents see other districts getting awards for sustainability, and they come to our office and say “we’re going do to this.” But if you look at what’s required, not any one person can do this. It’s got to be a team effort.
  2. What is a sustainability team or “Green Team,” and what is its role? The Green Team’s role is to look at facilities, buildings, and curriculum and determine exactly what we want to accomplish and how far we can go with this. You start small and work up. That’s what the team is for, to discuss exactly what we can get accomplished. As far as who’s on the Green Team, the first person should be the director of curriculum. It’s my opinion that anything we do with sustainability, we should be teaching to the kids. Also, you need your buildings and ground supervisors, your principals, and some of your teachers to be on board. And somebody has to be at the helm.
  3. How does the facilities team juggle day-to-day code compliance, training and operations issues, and also support sustainability? This is a huge question. How do you fit in all these other issues while you’re trying to work through the day-do-day problems of keeping the building safe and clean. There’s never enough time to get it all done. You have to do the very best you can with the hot-button items, the other stuff has to squeeze in somewhere in between. The idea of the team is to sit down and look at what you’re doing. Some of the sustainability stuff is already part of code, stuff we should be doing already. Sometimes you think it’s difficult to throw other things in, but if you sit and look, a lot of times we’re doing it already.
  4. How do we develop policy such as green cleaning policy and training; recycling; and a green building policy? Those policies would normally come from the buildings and grounds supervisor. Those are all things that, if we’re not doing, we should be doing. Green cleaning is way up on my list of things we should be doing, and removing chemicals from the building. It’s huge. We can have the buildings just as clean, just as sanitary, as we can by using hazardous chemicals. Why not take hazardous chemicals out of the equation?
    [Editor’s Note: NJSBA’s policy department has sample board policies on green building topics. Contact Jean Harkness at]
  5. Is the district using green-certified cleaning equipment and supplies? Have we adjusted our bid specifications to encourage use of green products and recycled paper products? At this point, in many or most cases you don’t even need to use bid specs any more. It’s a matter of going to a cooperative and buying.
  6. Have we completed an energy audit? Are we tracking and managing energy? Many districts have not even completed an energy audit, and it’s often free. It takes a phone call. A company sponsored by the state of New Jersey and the utilities does it, a portion of your utility bill goes to cover it. You make an appointment, they send a company to do the audit, and they make recommendations on where your savings are. In Sparta, we replaced all of our boilers and lighting with money we saved by doing the upgrades.
  7. How are we buying energy – through bidding, co-ops, etc? Look for co-ops. Co-ops (like ACES) are the way to go.
  8. Is the district collaborating with our municipality on sustainability efforts?
  9. If there’s a way to do it, I always recommend it.
  10. Have we completed or participated in an indoor air quality review? All districts are required to have a designated person for indoor air quality. Teachers are known for finding problems in their room for air quality, odors, etc. Mold is another issue. We would get complaints and investigate, and include teachers in the process. A lot of districts put a teacher in charge of the process.
  11. What’s going on outside of our buildings? Are we handling our grounds in a sustainable way? Killing weeds, exterminating bees, these are all concerns. Believe it or not, you can use a mixture of vinegar and soap to kill weeds. And I’m not just talking about live grass – you have to disinfect turf fields, too. A turf field is nothing more than an outside carpet, it has to be cleaned just like a carpet. You still have to maintain it. There are green ways to do it. We went completely away from chemicals. It’s all part of being sustainable.

Keith Gourlay is executive director of the New Jersey School Buildings and Grounds Association, and retired as buildings and grounds supervisor in the Sparta school district after 30 years. He may be reached at