(Editor's note: To see the charts and graphs that accompany this article, click HERE. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)

As has gone the economy over the past couple of years, so went spending by school districts on maintenance and operations (M&O).

M&O spending as a percentage of district net current expenditures (NCE) continued its slide in the 2001-02 school year, sinking to 7.8 percent compared to 8.5 percent the year before, according to American School & University's 31st annual Maintenance and Operations Cost Study. This represents the fifth consecutive year schools have apportioned a smaller percentage of expenditures to M&O, and marks the lowest percentage since this survey's inception.

Even as the effects of inadequate maintenance continue to plague many of the nation's school buildings, M&O budgets continue to be among the first cut during tight financial times — resulting in a classic “pay me now or pay me more later” scenario.

Behind the survey

In January, chief business officials at the nation's public school districts were asked to document various M&O costs, including salary/payroll, gas, electricity, utilities, maintenance and grounds equipment and supplies, outside contract labor and other costs.

In response to reader interest, this year's survey results report the median number for each category (i.e., payroll, gas, electricity, utilities, equipment and supplies, etc.) on a national level and by district enrollment. Data reported identify budgeted expenditures for M&O per student and per square foot for the 2001-02 school year.

Categories used in the survey questionnaire:

  • Budgeted: Amounts for the 2001-02 school year.

  • Per student: Based on enrollment (average daily attendance as of November 2001).

  • 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, benefits, gas, electricity, 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 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, travel expenses, equipment repair and rental, and insurance.

As you compare your school district's M&O expenditures with the medians reported, keep in mind that all costs are greatly affected by a number of factors, including the age and overall condition of buildings, climate, the labor market in your area, as well as other aspects over which school administrators have limited control.

Of particular interest

Among the highlights of this year's survey:

  • While total NCE per student increased 12 percent over last year's figure, total M&O spending per student grew a mere 2 percent.

  • The cost per student of gas nearly doubled to $60.04 from $34.88 last year.

  • The amount of square feet maintained per custodian increased to 23,985 from 22,222 square feet last year. Square feet maintained per maintenance worker jumped to 89,000 from 82,349 square feet last year.

  • National median salaries increased this year for all titles surveyed. Maintenance was reported at $33,076 (up 13 percent from last year), grounds at $28,125 (up 18 percent) and custodial at $24,203 (up 7 percent).

  • The median public school district has 15 full-time custodial, four full-time maintenance and one full-time grounds personnel.

  • Transportation costs increased this year. The median school district spends 5.1 percent of its total budget and $376 per pupil on transportation (4.4 percent and $333 per pupil last year).

Agron is editor-in-chief of AS&U.