School Leader Manages Smart Growth in Va. Suburb
For Jeffrey K. Platenberg, every part of a school should support learning, from the science curriculum to the heating system.
As the assistant superintendent for support services of the Loudoun County, Va., school district, Platenberg worked to find transportation and energy efficiencies to protect the district’s instructional support during a time of tight state education budgets and a rapidly expanding student population. Loudoun County, an outer suburb of Washington, has seen its school enrollment grow from 40,250 students in 2003-04 to 68,289 in the current school year.
“It’s amazing we’ve increased our square footage and decreased our energy consumption; we’re actually saving more money while we’re expanding,” says Platenberg, 51, who, for his work in Loudoun County, was given the 2012 International Eagle Award by the Association of School Business Officials International.
From the time of his arrival in the district in 2007, Platenberg began helping it cope with robust growth. That work included building 13 new schools, renovating nine more, and constructing five additions. By constructing new buildings more sustainably and updating inefficient systems at older schools, Loudoun County saved $28.4 million during Platenberg’s tenure from January 2007 to December 2012, and Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick estimates the district has saved $47 million in the past 15 years.
“He’s really been able to ratchet up what we’ve been able to do,” Hatrick says. “Jeff’s a pretty creative thinker; he understands the construction business really well, but he comes from a business background, so he’s really able to merge those two things.”
Platenberg believes his diverse background has helped him think creatively. His 27-year career in public education has also given him continuing opportunities to learn, he says.
For example, during a stint as a school system transportation analyst in Lorton, Va., early in his career, he went through the bus-driver-certification process that he was expected to manage. When he later moved to a position supervising capital improvements for Virginia’s Fairfax County public schools, he earned a general contractor’s license. A stint as head of accountability and information technology for the Lexington County, S.C., schools allowed him to immerse himself in instructional issues.
And everywhere he has lived, from Morocco to Serbia’s capital of Belgrade, to Savannah, Ga., he has observed the ways and reasons communities build their schools differently.
It doesn’t hurt, Hatrick adds, that Platenberg also gets feedback and advice on how the systems are functioning from his wife, Janet A. Platenberg, the principal of Steuart W. Weller Elementary School, one of the district’s newly built elementary schools. She is one of the National School Boards Association’s 20 “administrators to watch” for technology innovation.
Loudoun students give a lot of feedback, too. Platenberg and his colleagues in the facilities office instituted regular talks to students about the ways the district is trying to be energy-efficient and how students can help, including discussions on how heating systems work and the ins and outs of photovoltaic cells.
High school students even helped inspire the district’s new solar-panel system, Platenberg recalls. Platenberg says he had considered solar panels to be too expensive to install until a high school student caught up with him in the hall one day and pulled examples and articles on new, less expensive solar technology from his backpack. Continued interest from students persuaded him to include solar technology in the district’s energy grid, which Platenberg says will help cut the district’s carbon dioxide emissions by 1.8 billion metric tons over the life of the system.
“The students really dig it,” Platenberg says. “When you get the children involved, they don’t have any boundaries in their thinking, and they are always pressing us to be more creative, more inventive.”
Green and Growing
Part of that inventiveness comes from creating a feedback loop in which the district evaluates what worked and what didn’t in every construction project for use in the next building’s design. The district now orients campuses to make best use of natural light, filters rainwater for use in its landscaping, and regularly audits the efficiency of every electrical, plumbing, and heating system.
It’s easier to experiment with innovative ways to build in energy savings when you are constructing new campuses every year, but Platenberg says districts don’t have to be growing as rapidly as Loudoun is to start making themselves more sustainable.
He advises district officials to start regularly auditing all of their facilities systems: heating and cooling, water, electrical, transportation, food, and groundskeeping. Preventive maintenance is often an easy item to cut from a tight school budget, but Platenberg says once administrators understand how those systems work, they can experiment with ways to improve them—and identify leaks, electrical short circuits, and other problems before they turn costly.
For example, the district’s move to weekly checklist-based audits of its in-house catering program brought it from a $2.1 million loss to profitability within two years.
“It’s not really sexy to be standing in a boiler room at 7 at night, waiting to make sure a system goes off and stays off,” Platenberg says, “but when those things are working effectively, you save pennies [per square foot], and when you multiply that by all the square footage, recurring every month, that’s thousands of dollars.
“If we can save that money, we can afford more teachers, and if we can afford more teachers, that’s what we’re here for, teaching and learning,” Platenberg says.
It can also help districts get more excited about those “unsexy” improvements to participate in an award or certification program. Loudoun, for example, has 47 buildings certified through the federal Energy Star program, which requires annual audits and recertification. It also won the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 Sustained Excellence Award and first place in the Virginia School Boards Association’s Green School Challenge.
“I’d highly recommend districts to participate; it forces you to stay on top of it, which is what sustainability is all about,” Platenberg says.
Platenberg’s career came full circle this year. He started a new job as the assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation services in the neighboring 181,500-student Fairfax County system—the largest district in Virginia and the one where he first worked as a senior school budget analyst.