Growing demands placed on school districts continue to stretch thin available dollars, and maintenance and operations (M&O) budgets remain a prime target for cuts. But this should be of no surprise; M&O traditionally has been shortchanged, resulting in some school facilities that have a deferred maintenance backlog dating back 10 years or more-and deficiencies that are growing exponentially.

Nationwide, school districts allocated just more than nine percent of their net current expenditures (NCE) to M&O in the 1998-99 school year, according to American School & University's 28th annual Maintenance and Operations Cost Study. This represents the second year in a row that schools are using a smaller percentage of their budgets to preserve and run their facilities, which amounts to much less than the 13 percent of NCE earmarked a little more than a decade ago.

Survey methodology

To arrive at the results for the most recent M&O Cost Study, an in-depth survey was mailed to approximately 6,000 chief business officials at public school districts with enrollment of more than 600 students. Administrator were asked to document various M&O costs, including salary/payroll, energy, outside contract labor, maintenance equipment and supplies, and utilities.

Surveys were analyzed, and the median number for each category (i.e., payroll, outside contract labor, gas, electricity, equipment and supplies, etc.) was identified on a national and regional level. In no case were regional medians added or averaged to arrive at the national figures. National medians were calculated by analyzing every survey in each category and identifying the median number. Be aware 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 1998-99 school year. Following are the categories used on the survey questionnaire:

-Budgeted: Amounts for the 1998-99 school year, reported as of the November 1998 survey deadline.

-Per student: Based on enrollment (average daily attendance as of October 1998).

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

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

-Total maintenance and operations expenditures: Including salaries, fringes, overhead, energy, utilities, outside contracts, equipment and supplies, etc., for maintenance, custodial and grounds.

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

-Maintenance: Those individuals who perform skilled jobs, such as HVAC, plumbing or electrical 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, equipment repair and rental, trash removal, travel expenses and insurance.

When comparing your 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, the labor market in your area, climate, as well as other factors over which school officials have limited control. Also, because medians are used and the majority of the nation's school districts-and respondents to the survey-are small- to medium-size (median student enrollment of 2,192), costs at large school systems may vary significantly.