the exterior of a school building


The pandemic has put the role of facilities management and janitorial services—work usually done after hours and out of sight—front and center. As many school districts across the country look to fully reopen their buildings this fall, making sure their schools are clean and safe for students and employees is a crucial concern.

ABM is a facilities solution provider with more than 100 years of expertise in the facilities management business. ABM Education President Valerie Burd spoke with ASBJ Editor-in-Chief Kathleen Vail recently about increasing community confidence, dealing with budget shortfalls, and the importance of mentors.

Tell us about your company’s role in education.

At ABM, we take care of the places and spaces that are important to you. The division that I run provides critical facilities services, including janitorial, engineering, and landscaping services, to K-12 schools and colleges and universities. Much of the work we’ve done in the past was hidden away and done after hours, especially our janitorial services. In today’s world, we see that changing. People want to see the spaces they are occupying are clean, healthy, and safe, and they want to see people cleaning in the spaces instead of being tucked away at night. Clean, safe environments from a healthy facility perspective have taken more precedence than ever before.

What do schools need to consider about reopening?

Schools need to have either internal knowledge and resources or a strong partner that is closely aligned to what the CDC, OSHA, and other experts recommend. We saw throughout the past year, as experts have learned more about COVID-19, their recommendations have been changing rapidly. Schools have needed to pivot quickly, and so have we. Based on our client needs, ABM built out an advisory group with epidemiologists, industrial hygienists, engineers, and other experts who helped us construct processes and procedures and apply technology to promote healthy spaces.

We launched two service offerings, the EnhancedClean program and EnhancedFacility, which specifically help combat COVID-19 and other pathogens such as the flu. The EnhancedClean program was designed to help clients return to school safely, to navigate change, and to deliver assurance by demonstrating trustworthy cleaning and disinfection. Some of the areas we focus on are consistent interval disinfection of frequent high-touch points and broad disinfection. It offers peace of mind to our clients and those who they serve, the community. EnhancedFacility is an expert-backed approach to delivering healthier indoor air quality

How can schools address these issues while also dealing with budget shortfalls?

This is where having a firm like ABM is valuable. We have specific expertise around operating best-in-class facilities; we know what is required to do this. Federal stimulus funds are creating opportunities for schools right now, but they are quite confusing. The funds are potentially providing momentary relief. Unfortunately, most schools have not recovered yet from the 2008 recession. This is why we advocate for a noninstructional spend analysis that would promote a permanent operational fix. We know from a report by The Century Foundation that schools are underfunded by almost $150 billion annually. Education leaders must make the current dollars stretch. Service providers can help generate new savings options and efficiencies that can offset excessive costs for up to two years. ABM solutions are designed to lower operating costs to promote new opportunities.

With the noninstructional spend analysis, we want to make sure school funding goes to the right place, which is to the students. It involves our team getting into the weeds with the school team and seeing what they are spending for noninstructional items. We can help school leaders develop a path to savings, and we want to add value and bring best practices. Reducing spending doesn’t mean reducing service.

What long-term impact will the pandemic have on schools?

COVID-19 has increased the importance of safe, clean, and healthy spaces. We won’t see that change. What we are hearing from clients is that some of the changes due to COVID are likely to be permanent. Instructional days may increase; some form of distance learning will remain in place. These changes do increase operating and budget costs, and it puts pressure on schools to figure that out. At ABM, we recognize the importance of increasing community confidence in the fact that schools are safe to learn and socialize in.

As a successful businesswoman, what advice would you offer to other women leaders?

I recently participated in a panel discussion on advancing your career, and I talked about the importance of building a personal brand. The brand I built has three elements: work hard, take chances, and build relationships. From a very young age, those three elements have been my focus.

I took a chance coming to ABM. It was a big career shift. Now, 16 years later, I’m the president of our Education Group. I wouldn’t be where I am today without mentors. I had both male and female mentors. They bring different experiences and mindsets as someone to look up to and say, I could do that, I could get there. I would never be where I am today on my own. You need mentors who will be honest and frank and tell you what you would need to work on to get to the next level.

Being a mentor and finding a mentor: That one-to-one human connection helps break down barriers, fosters sharing of experience, and it naturally drives a more diverse, culturally inclusive environment. If I didn’t build those relationships, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

More information about ABM Education can be found at

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