As the nation's school buildings grow older and physical conditions continue to deteriorate, the logical solution would be for school districts to concentrate more resources to improve the situation. However, this is not the case for most elementary and secondary institutions. School districts across the nation are dedicating a smaller percentage of available funds to maintaining and operating the facilities that house America's youth.

Spending per student for the 2000-01 school year on maintenance and operations (M&O) by school districts actually increased slightly from last year's survey — up 3 percent. But when taken as a percentage of net current expenditures (NCE), spending dropped to 8.5 percent compared with 9 percent the year before, according to American School & University's 30th annual Maintenance and Operations Cost Study.

Not only is this the fourth consecutive year that schools have allocated a smaller percentage of expenditures to M&O of their facilities, but also the figure is the lowest in three decades.

Getting the Numbers

In November, a detailed survey was mailed to chief business officials at public school districts with enrollment of more than 600 students. The questionnaire asked administrators to document various M&O costs, including salary/payroll, energy, utilities, maintenance and grounds equipment and supplies, outside contract labor and other costs.

The median number for each category (payroll, gas, electricity, utilities, equipment and supplies, etc.) was identified on a national and regional level. (It's important to note that the number of responses received from each region will directly affect final figures reported from year to year.) Data reported identify budgeted expenditures for M&O per student and per square foot for the 2000-01 school year.

Following are the categories used on the survey questionnaire:

  • Budgeted: Amounts for the 2000-01 school year, reported as of the December 2000 survey deadline.

  • Per student: Based on enrollment (average daily attendance as of November 2000).

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

  • NCE (net current expenditure): Total district expenditures, including teacher salaries, minus the cost of capital outlay, debt service and transportation.

  • Total maintenance and operations (M&O) expenditures: Including salaries, fringes, overhead, energy, utilities, equipment and supplies, outside contracts, etc., for custodial, maintenance and grounds.

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

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

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

  • Payroll: Including fringes.

  • Average salary: Annualized, excluding fringes.

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

  • Other fuel: Including oil and coal.

  • Other utilities: Including water, telephone, etc.

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

When comparing your school district's M&O expenditures with the regional and national medians reported, keep in mind that all costs are greatly affected by the age and overall condition of buildings, climate, the labor market in your area, as well as other factors over which school administrators have limited control. Also, the rapid escalation in energy costs experienced by most areas of the country this winter most likely is not reflected in this year's data. This is due to the fact that budgets reported in the survey were already set for most schools prior to the spike in prices.

In addition, because the study uses medians, and the majority of the nation's school districts — and respondents to the survey — are small- to medium-size (median student enrollment of 1,196), costs may vary if you are from a much larger institution.