The health of a school district can be seen, in part, in the condition of its buildings. Numerous studies have shown that the state of a school's facilities has a direct impact on student outcomes. Ventilation and air quality, classroom temperature, lighting, acoustics and more can all either help or hinder not only student and teacher comfort but also their performance at school.

School districts spend upwards of $45 billion annually simply on facilities maintenance to achieve a healthy, safe learning environment, according to a report from the 21st Century School Fund. Although states subsidize a percentage of these costs, many districts depend on their local voters and communities for support.

But despite this seemingly high dollar amount, many schools struggle to manage the upkeep of their facilities. Sadly, some can't even afford to adhere to basic safety standards.

By better managing the tax dollars schools already have, they can overcome some of these hurdles.

The data can tell a story

Facilities management is one of the most important facets of a district’s operations, and one that is most often overlooked. By more thoroughly tracking and managing facility usage, districts have the potential to save money.

Several data points can help a school district figure out where and how to expand or tighten their budgets. Districts should be tracking: how often their facilities are currently used; the community demand for their facilities; the cost of operating those facilities; and potential rental revenues. This data can unlock trends in approval times related to declines, cancellations and unanswered requests from both internal school groups and community organizations.

Many potential issues can be uncovered by collecting this data. It may identify groups that are being improperly charged based on their status as either non-profit or for-profit groups. It might show that the cost of operation exceeds the cost of payment for certain events. Or it could point the way to the types of groups that make the best renters in terms of cost-effectiveness and reliability.

Roadblocks to reading the data

While most schools attempt to track this type of data, most aren’t doing it very effectively because they lack either the tools, resources or manpower. After years of working with schools, we’ve found that on average up to 90 percent of districts lack an efficient tracking system.

Most of the tracking and event-scheduling tools used by districts were developed more than 20 years ago. Many switched to Google and Outlook Calendar because they were more advanced. But Google and Outlook created problems of their own. When every administrator at every school is using their own separate calendar, it can be impossible to see the big picture.

Within large districts, the problem is even more exacerbated. Many school administrators feel overwhelmed by community use of facilities, but have no way to communicate this to the district because they lack the data to back it up. This can lead to problems such as not enough custodial staff, for example.

By failing to track facilities costs, rates, exceptions, utilization and other key metrics, schools end up hemorrhaging money without even knowing it. But when districts adapt a facilities management platform, we've seen progress. Proper tracking and management of rentals has helped schools average a 21% cost recovery.

Proper tracking and management of rentals has helped schools average a 21% cost recovery.

Another problem is that districts don't have updated or even accurate facility use policies. In fact, 90% of policy rates are not based on actual costs because facility usage fees don't typically account for use and ongoing maintenance.

And many districts cut their fees in half (or even waive them) for non-profit and other community groups, even though these organizations often use school facilities the most. This makes complete cost recovery nearly impossible. Does it even make sense to offer modified fees to such groups? Reduced costs for nonprofits results in tax payers subsidizing outside organizations and ultimately depriving the district of funding for teachers and student programs.

During discussions with legislators, I've heard a resounding message: Schools should be held to a higher level of accountability with public dollars. Many industry experts even anticipate that legislation is soon to follow. What does this mean for schools? It's best to take action now to get ahead of new regulations.

Key steps to tracking effectively

Building a well-developed facility use program takes work and dedication. It’s also a crucial factor in helping schools make the most of their already limited creative program funding. We know that even districts seeking to make a change, by and large, do not possess the tools or staff to create a well-developed facility use program.

Licensing new software alone is not enough. This shift lacks the expertise and shared knowledge and context gleaned from other districts, which render meaningful results and move things forward. Not only is the cost of such software usually sky-high, but these programs often offer little help to ensure the districts are using the new system properly.

Schools need a way to proactively track and analyze facility use data and understand how the data they’re looking at relates to the behavior of their users, the processes the district has in place and the policies from which those processes are derived.

To start, districts must accept the fact that they need help, both with managing and tracking facility use and with adhering to accompanying policies. A healthy facilities management program can be a strong asset for your school’s budget, rather than a confusing and frustrating source of lost revenue.