K-12 leaders may have had a high-pressure job before COVID-19 arrived, but it’s only grown more complex since. With the return of in-person learning came a daunting new world of health and safety considerations, not to mention increasing scrutiny from parents and policymakers alike.

As a group of public school administrators agreed during a discussion at the K-12 Facilities Forum, however, the folks who work in this industry are driven by a higher calling – one more powerful than any of the obstacles in their way.

Moderated by Facilitron’s Cheryl Galloway – formerly an emergency preparedness and energy conservation specialist in California’s Gilroy Unified School District – the panel included Joseph Sanches, COO at Palm Beach Schools; Roy Sprague, COO at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD; and Wanda Paul, COO at Houston Independent School District. 

Keeping Students Safe and Healthy

Three issues have dominated K-12 facilities leaders’ agendas since coming out of the pandemic: mental health, air quality, and building security.

“The big issue for us is mental health,” Sanches said. “We're finding that students are coming back into an environment unprepared for the social interactions they're now engaging in. And then there's a lot of stress going on.”

To equip educators with the tools they need to support students in this time, he added, Florida recently passed a law requiring 80% of his district’s employees to undergo mental health training. 

In Cypress-Fairbanks, new funding for behavioral interventionists allowed schools to take a stronger preventative approach to mental health issues. Still, the district is facing calls from parents to beef up physical security to an extreme degree.

“We're trying to find that right balance to resolve the parents' concerns but also make a good learning environment.”


“They really want us to look at building prisons now," Sprague said, noting that prison-like design is generally not conducive to a quality education. “We're trying to find that right balance to resolve the parents' concerns but also make a good learning environment.”

School districts that moved quickly to improve air quality in 2020 and 2021 will soon face a costly challenge: converting short-term fixes into long-term solutions. As Sanches explained, Palm Beach went into "triage mode" early in the pandemic and added portable purifiers into each of its classrooms. This past summer, it paid nearly $2 million to replace them. 

"That's not a sustainable solution for us," he said. "We have to figure out, long-term, what we're going to do to provide the kind of better indoor air quality that parents are now expecting – that teachers are now expecting – in our classrooms, without having to spend that kind of money every couple of years.”

Using ESSER Funding in the Right Way

Fortunately, K-12 leaders have at least one powerful tool in their pockets: financial support provided through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Deploying ESSER funding effectively requires an intentional, top-down approach that might mean overruling other stakeholders when necessary. 




"We have to ensure that the money is targeted for the right things at each school," Paul said. "This is not an opportunity to say one size fits all, because it really doesn't. Our principals are very vocal about that; they want to move it to other things. But you definitely have to have checks and balances in there to make sure the money is used the right way.”

Then there’s the dark side of ESSER funding: When it runs out, districts that used it to supplement their budgets amidst rising inflation will have to pay the piper.

"If the state doesn't do some changes in their funding allocation on a per-student basis, there are going to be a lot of districts that have significant deficit budgets, which is going to result in significant budget cuts,” Sprague said. “Guess where they go first? We have to start cutting operational staff, maintenance folks, bus drivers, you name it. It changes the way we have to operate big-time.”

“Don’t Compromise Your Integrity.”

For districts dealing with shrinking enrollment, the speakers offered a few words of wisdom. Sprague, who said Cypress-Fairbanks is seeing increasing competition from charter schools, argued for the importance of robust marketing campaigns centered around what public education does best. Paul, stressing that charter schools are not the bogeymen they’re often made out to be, touched on the importance of strong community ties. 

"It's all about trust," she said. "Don't compromise your integrity, do what you say you're going to do, and be transparent. These are the tenets that I've lived by for years." 

Sure, trust alone might not be enough to overcome supply chain issues or staffing shortages. (For that last one, Paul used ESSER funds for retention bonuses.) But by building trust, Paul hopes to win approval for a bond measure later this year. Houston’s last bond was in 2012; she expects that this new one will be the largest in Texas history. 

"It's all about trust...do what you say you're going to do, and be transparent."


"One of the principal items that we're going to focus on is safety and security," she said. "We have aging facilities, and we have really new high schools and really old elementary schools, so we must address that gap. We must move towards the 21st Century regarding how we protect our facilities.” 

She predicted that it will take a bond measure every five or six years to ensure the district’s sustainability. 

Leveraging Remote Work

In-person learning may be paramount, but that doesn’t mean school systems can’t benefit from the broader shift to remote work. The new paradigm can be a boon for sprawling administrative workforces, especially when there’s only so much maintenance funding to go around. 

"I think that is part of the key to transforming the future," Paul said, lamenting that one of her district's newer buildings is already bursting at the seams.




Sanches, whose district is moving to a remote-work policy to ensure its facilities aren't overburdened, observed that job listings enjoy higher response rates when they mention remote work. "That's part of the solution," he said. 

Work-from-home policies can also help reduce energy costs, though they’re not the only way: All three speakers said their districts adopted a four-day workweek during the summer, both to save on utility costs and to boost retention. What this all boils down to, Galloway argued, is the importance of tracking and managing behavior. 

“I ran the energy program at my district, and it's all about behavior," she said. "Knowing when to have the lights and equipment on, and when people aren't in buildings, making sure that everything is turned off."

The same is true of security, she added. "They can throw money at you, give you fancy locks, give you different doors, but a lot of it is just the behavior of the people."

“It’s About People”

As they wrapped up the conversation, the speakers reflected on what they’ve learned about what it takes to move quickly in times of crisis. 

"I've learned that it's about people and having amazing staff, having patient citizens, having a patient board to help you get through that crisis," Paul said. 

Echoing her, Sanches extolled the passion of public educators and operations staff, from bus drivers to food service workers. "They're not in it for the money; they're in it for what they love to do," he said. "That's what made the difference for us."

Steve Manning

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Steve Manning is a journalist based in Idaho. When he's not writing, he can usually be found at the theater or taking his dog on a hike. If he could only go to one restaurant for the rest of his life, it would be Al's Place in San Francisco.

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