It's a well-known fact that when school districts look to make up budget shortfalls, maintenance and operations (M&O) typically is the first area to be cut. However, since this has been common practice for decades, continued reliance on M&O spending reductions can be equated to trying to get blood from a stone — there is little left to cut without causing additional harm, and some districts have reduced spending so much that learning environments are being impacted significantly.

But recent data confirms that the practice of providing fewer resources to M&O continues. In fact, according to American School & University's 34th annual Maintenance and Operations Cost Study, the median school district spends 7.5 percent of total district expenditures (TDE) on M&O — a slight decrease from last year and a percentage hovering close to the all-time-low 7.43 percent allocated in 2003 (see chart “A decade of M&O expenditures”).

Survey methodology

In October, 2004, a detailed questionnaire was mailed to chief business officials at the nation's public school districts asking them to document myriad M&O costs, including salary/payroll, outside contract labor, utilities, gas, electricity, trash collection/disposal, maintenance and grounds equipment and supplies, and other costs, as well as various maintenance practices.

Data then were broken out on a national level and by district enrollment, identifying budgeted expenditures for M&O per student and per square foot for the 2004-05 school year. Categories used in the survey questionnaire:

  • Per student: Based on total district enrollment (average daily attendance as of October 2004).

  • Per square foot: Based on total gross area of all district buildings maintained, including corridors, offices and common space.

  • Total district expenditures (TDE): Amounts for the 2004-05 school year.

  • Total maintenance and operations (M&O) expenditures: Including salaries, benefits, outside contracts, utilities, gas, electricity, trash collection/disposal, equipment and supplies, etc., for custodial, maintenance and grounds.

  • Custodial: Those individuals responsible for building upkeep and cleaning.

  • Maintenance: Those individuals who perform skilled jobs, such as electrical, HVAC or plumbing repair.

  • Grounds: Those individuals responsible for landscape upkeep and maintenance.

  • Payroll: Including benefits.

  • Average salary: Annualized, excluding benefits.

  • Outside contract labor: Those hired for specialized jobs to maintain or repair building systems or equipment, such as HVAC maintenance or repair.

  • Other utilities: Including water, telephone, etc.

  • Other: Most often identified as clerical costs, insurance, travel, and equipment repair and rental.

An important thing to keep in mind as you compare data: All costs are greatly affected by numerous factors including age and overall condition of buildings, climate, the labor market in your area, as well as other aspects over which district administrators have limited control.