The Houston Independent School District took a big step in 2007 toward becoming environmentally friendly by designing two new schools to meet a coveted "green" standard set by a private-builders' group.
The nation's seventh-largest school district added features such as automated light sensors and a heat-reflecting roof, in hopes of minimizing energy use.
But the schools are not operating as promised.
Thompson Elementary ranked 205th out of 239 Houston schools in a report last year for the district that showed each school's energy cost per student. Walnut Bend Elementary ranked 155th. A third "green" school, built in 2010, ranked 46th in the report, which a local utility did for the district to find ways of cutting energy costs.
Poor equipment maintenance plagued the schools built in 2007, a problem that districtwide improvements are now addressing, said Gavin Dillingham, the district's energy manager until August.
"People have the mistaken impression that once buildings are LEED-certified, they're always going to run energy-efficiently," Dillingham said. "They don't."
The problems in Houston illustrate the little-discussed uncertainty of "green schools," which promise huge energy savings and rising student performance, but do not always deliver, despite their extra cost.
Sixteen states, accounting for nearly half of the nation's 100,000 schools, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars for green-certified schools, or are requiring local school districts to follow a private green-rating system such as LEED in order to receive state construction funds. Another nine states have considered adding such requirements in the past two years, and many districts, in cities such as Houston, Los Angeles and New York, mandate green standards.
Green schools exist in every state and account for 45% of new school construction, up from 15% in 2008, according to researcher McGraw-Hill. By 2025, all school construction will be "green," McGraw-Hill projects. Building a LEED-certified school often adds 2% to 3% to construction costs, and as much as 10% in the case of a Selinsgrove, Pa., high school, state records show.
States and districts are spending more to build green schools even as they slash academic and extracurricular programs and amass multibillion-dollar backlogs of schools needing repairs and replacement.
In Ohio, the state is cutting $1.8 billion in aid to schools in 2012 and 2013 while agreeing to pay builders and designers an extra $160 million from a tobacco settlement fund so that 300 new schools can get certified under LEED.
In Illinois, where public schools need $10 billion in construction work, the state Capital Development Board opted to pay districts up to 5% extra to make their new buildings LEED-certified, as state law requires. The board has paid $800,000 extra per school project so far. With more than 300 schools needing replacement or additions, the extra payments could exceed $250 million.
Fueling the push for green schools
The green-school boom, a powerful and often costly phenomenon, is being driven largely by the Green Building Council, whose promise of student improvement and long-term cost savings has support from environmental and health advocates, teachers unions, school designers and the Department of Education.
"Green schools save money," the council declares in an 80-page guide for state legislators that cites one cost study - a council-funded report from 2006 that says certified schools use about a third less energy than conventional schools. The conclusion is based on estimates made before construction of 30 green-certified schools - including Washington Middle School in Olympia, Wash., projected to use 28% less energy.
The school consumed 19% more energy than a conventional school in its first two years, and 65% more than planned, a state report shows.
Another Washington report found that school designers "often overestimate the savings" in energy use, but that about 65% of a dozen green schools were shown to be more energy-efficient than conventional schools.
"It's often difficult to get real energy-performance data from schools," said Rachel Gutter, director of the building council's Center for Green Schools. Her evidence of savings is a single LEED-certified elementary school in Virginia that uses 40% less energy than a neighboring elementary school.
LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, awards points to buildings for features that aim to minimize emissions, water use, waste and indoor pollutants. A new school or commercial building needs 40 points out of a possible 100 for certification. Buildings are certified before occupancy based on design, with no penalty if they don't operate as promised.
In October, USA TODAY reported that thousands of commercial developers have won state and local tax breaks, grants, expedited permitting and waivers from development laws for LEED-certified buildings. More than 200 states, federal agencies and municipalities require LEED certification for public buildings. Roughly 85 cities including Los Angeles, Washington and Boston require LEED for some private buildings in hopes of helping the environment.
For green schools, the appeal is augmented by concern that students are susceptible to environmental hazards often found inside aging, crowded classrooms, chemical-filled labs and poorly ventilated gyms and locker rooms. Pollutants such as mold, dust, lead, pesticides, radon and pet dander are common in schools, the Environmental Protection Agency says.
Advocates say green schools can boost students' achievement by ensconcing them in quiet, well-ventilated, naturally lit, toxic-free spaces that minimize illness and enhance concentration.
"Green schools help improve student performance," the building council says in its legislators' guide.
But a USA TODAY review of school-test records, LEED-certification documents and research reports shows little correlation between "green schools" and student performance or energy use. Buildings can get certified by following standard school-construction practice and adding features unrelated to energy use or the interior, such as steps to reduce car trips and water use, ease light pollution and heat reflection, and limit parking capacity and storm-water runoff.
The most comprehensive report on green schools found no studies showing that they improve student learning or teacher success. The National Research Council in 2007 said that health, learning and productivity are "influenced by many individual family and community factors," making it difficult to pinpoint a building's effects. The report says students could benefit from school buildings that are dry, quiet, well-ventilated, temperature-controlled and clean.
USA TODAY found no clear pattern in a review of student test scores for 65 schools in 11 states that have been rebuilt to get LEED certification and have been open for at least two years. Forty-two of the schools saw test scores improve after students moved into a LEED building, and 23 saw them decline. Many of the changes were small and moved in the same direction as the school district.
"I haven't seen any research indicating that whether a school is green or not makes any difference," said Tom Loveless, an expert on student achievement at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
Although LEED schools might not boost test scores, Gutter of the green-schools center said they include features that help increase attentiveness, such as better acoustics - a LEED requirement - and more daylight. "No one working in the education community should be promising a silver bullet for improved test scores," she said.
'Green' features vs. cost
New schools have long included many of the features that LEED rewards: efficient heating and cooling systems and paints, flooring and wood products that emit low levels of harmful volatile-organic compounds (VOCs).
"Most schools have been doing the low-VOC materials for some time," said Irene Nigaglioni, a Dallas architect specializing in schools. "As soon as things come out that might improve student health or staff health, they'll do it."
In Ohio, the state school-design manual requires so many "green" features that a new school could nearly get LEED certification simply by following the manual, said Rick Savors, a spokesman for the Ohio School Facilities Commission. In 2007, when the commission required state-funded school projects to get LEED certification, "it was almost low-hanging fruit," Savors said.
But when commission staffers talked to school builders, "they didn't think they could pursue LEED without additional dollars," said Lisa Laney, the commission's green-schools program director. The commission added 3% to the amount it pays for a school project.
Laney said the LEED schools are anticipated to save $100,000 a year in utility and maintenance costs, based on building council projections, but she has not started to measure their performance.
School designers nationwide have pursued the easiest path to LEED certification, USA TODAY found in an analysis of 450 school buildings whose certification records are on the council's website.
Roughly 90% of LEED schools have used low-VOC products and regionally produced building materials. Those features are "easy" and "no cost," says the LEED user guide, written by BuildingGreen, a green consultant and publisher.
More than 90% of LEED schools also have equipment designed to reduce energy and water use and to improve indoor temperature and humidity. The most popular LEED point, earned by 99% of the LEED schools, has no effect on students or teachers but simply rewards projects whose design team includes a LEED expert.
Green schools look barely different from other new schools, except for the soaring windows that can brighten cinder-block classrooms. Inside Great Seneca Creek Elementary School in a Washington, D.C., suburb, mountain-landscape murals and poster displays of its LEED features are omnipresent reminders of the school's special status, Principal Scott Curry said.
"There is a great sense of pride in this school," Curry said. "We ensure kids understand how the school can be a key player in maintaining the environment."
The effort to teach about green buildings earned Great Seneca one LEED point.
The Green Building Council created a unique rating system for schools. It aims to promote student health and learning. LEED for Schools requires designers to reduce background noise in classrooms and to make sure building sites are not contaminated. The system also awards points for features that promise to prevent mold and to further improve indoor acoustics.
But those options are not popular. Just 42% of buildings certified under LEED for Schools have mold-prevention features, and 31% have enhanced acoustics.
Many school designers shun mold prevention because they fear being sued if mold ends up in the school, Gutter said. The building council plans a new name: "moisture control."
Striking the right balance
Some activists say the council needs more than new labels.
"LEED should have quite a bit more emphasis on indoor air quality," said Claire Barnett, executive director of Healthy Schools Network, a non-profit that promotes environmental health in schools. "Frankly, schools are mostly about indoor environments."
Gutter agrees but said the council must be careful not to make the program cost more than cash-strapped districts will pay. The original version of LEED for Schools included - and then dropped - air-quality requirements that school designers said were too difficult and costly.
"We're trying to figure out how to straddle what the market can tolerate and how LEED can drive even more enhanced conditions in schools," Gutter said.
The Houston school district, acknowledging energy-use shortcomings in its earliest green schools, plans to establish "an even higher energy standard" for new schools built with $1.9 billion in funding approved by district voters in November, spokesman Jason Spencer said. "It's the right thing to do for students, taxpayers and the environment," Spencer said.
An alternative school-rating system developed by the California-based Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) emphasizes features that affect students as opposed to the outdoor environment.
"Schools are student-focused, and we're trying to build better schools," CHPS Executive Director William Orr said.
But CHPS is used in only about a dozen states, overshadowed by the building council, a 13,000-member group run by designers, builders and building suppliers with 79 local chapters.
"They have a very strong marketing arm and have been able to reach out to schools, to legislators," said Nigaglioni, the Dallas architect. "They had a whole other set of marketers out there saying. 'You have to do this.'"
Some states and school districts simply require green features in new schools but not certification. New Jersey directs new state-funded schools to "incorporate the guidelines" of LEED. But certification "shall not be pursued" to avoid documentation costs, registration fees "and the bureaucracy and related time of another third-party review."
A federal report says that "soft costs," such as fees to the building council and to LEED consultants, add about $150,000 to the price of a new federal building. A Washington state report found soft costs added $82,000 on average to new state and college buildings.
One of the most aggressive green standards was developed by New York City, which took about two dozen options from both LEED and CHPS and made them mandatory.
"We really wanted to focus on credits where we knew there was a need," said Bruce Barrett, vice president for architecture and engineering at the city School Construction Authority. "You could do any number of credits that would potentially add some dollars onto the construction cost. But we wanted to target the credits that would give us the best benefit."
By Thomas Frank