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New Jersey’s 581 local boards of education and 87 charter school boards of trustees include more than 5,000 members. These boards govern the operation of all New Jersey public schools, which educate approximately 1.4 million students, ages 3 to 21.

As part of its mission, NJSBA provides a variety of tools and services to help board members effectively govern and make a positive impact on student achievement and efficient operations. Prior to 2011, it was difficult for school board members to learn about sustainability measures in schools. However, as a handful of schools began to pioneer sustainability initiatives, the advantages of doing so became evident. These schools were able to lower their operational costs, and redirect those savings to other educational priorities.

NJSBA recognized the potential opportunity and impact that sustainability initiatives could have, especially in the face of challenging economic times and increased state mandates. Given the many other issues school officials need to address, sustainability has not generally been a priority. Educational decision-makers needed to learn about the processes used by schools and districts that had successfully incorporated sustainability into their strategic plans. In 2011, as a critical first step, NJSBA began training for board members to increase their understanding of how to integrate sustainability throughout school operations into areas such as finance, buildings and grounds, curriculum, policy and other areas involved in the day-to-day and long-term functions of a school. That was a successful first step, but more data was needed to support and justify sustainability efforts.

When this project began, there was little accessible information on greening existing schools, particularly regarding the leadership decisions that facilitated change and how connections to the classroom, if any, impacted teaching and learning. The New Jersey Sustainable Schools Project was created to address a single, guiding question: “Is sustainability a factor in contributing to the success of New Jersey schools?” The intent of the project was to document the impact that sustainability has on schools, capture the process for implementing sustainable practices, and provide the results to district decision makers throughout New Jersey.

Implementing sustainability is not a one-size-fits-all process. Data from multiple types schools — urban, suburban and rural — was needed to accurately capture the variety of methods that were successful, as well as those that did not work. Numerous detailed success stories, as well as reports about challenges were key components of this project.

It is clear that sustainability does positively impact the success of New Jersey schools, in both the academic and the financial arena. Innovative sustainability measures resulted in cost savings, enabling funds to be used for other educational purposes. Sustainability measures also resulted in healthier learning environments.

A few highlights:

In Allamuchy, for example, a district school redirected cafeteria waste. The composted food waste is used in the school garden, presenting the district with a double bonus – the school doesn’t buy fertilizer for the garden and it pays less in “tipping fees” to get rid of its garbage. The district saved money, and also engaged students in experiential hands-on learning

Swedesboro-Woolwich estimates it has saved $17,000 by going “paperless” and making the district newsletter and various flyers available electronically.

Medford Township Public Schools (MTPS) is on track this year to surpass its goal of reducing energy costs by 5 percent through various conservation measures. For the 2010-2011 school year MTPS’s electric and natural gas spending was $940,181. Last year, 2014-2015, MTPS’s energy spending was $792,094. This represents a 16 percent reduction in gas, electric and natural gas costs. MTPS has saved roughly $592,000 over the past six years. District spending on energy was lower in 2014-2015 than it had been a decade earlier. Since 1998 the district biodiesel use has reduced busing fleet operating expenses by roughly $170,000.

Cherry Hill is undergoing a comprehensive energy upgrade in several facilities throughout the district, and expects to save money.

In some districts, the sustainability initiatives have been geared to improving the health of students – a factor which has a documented impact on student achievement. At the Gabels Elementary School in Neptune Township, officials are taking steps to improve indoor air quality by upgrading to HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorption) air filters, replacing carpet and applying low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint that is routinely used. The school is tracking student asthma incidence by looking at the distribution of nebulizers and inhalers from the nurse to quantify the difference, and document the decrease in asthma incidences.