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High Heating Bills To Force Layoffs in City Districts

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Washington--More than 60 percent of the nation's urban school districts plan to lay off teachers and other personnel in order to help pay their heating bills this winter, a recent survey has found.

Such drastic steps are being taken in response to a 73-percent increase in the price of natural gas from the 1980-81 to 1982-83 school year, according to the survey, which was conducted by the American Association of School Administrators.

Two-thirds of the districts in the Midwest, which experienced a record-setting cold spell last month, expect to pay 28 percent of their fuel bills by cutting personnel, the survey found.

Only school officials in the relatively warm Southwest said personnel cuts would be unnecessary, the aasa survey found. But even in that region, urban schools reported they would need addition-al revenues to cover 79 percent of their fuel costs this year.

"Personnel cuts would be ironic at a time of national concern with the quality of public education," association officials wrote of the survey's findings. "The report by 63 percent of the respondents that they plan to lay off teachers to pay fuel bills flies in the face of the reported need to improve schools."

Natural-Gas Price Increases

According to the survey, which included a representative sample of 77 districts nationwide, sharp increases in natural-gas prices during the past two years have been a prime contributor to financial problems for most of the nation's urban school systems--those with a population base greater than 100,000.

The increases have been brought about by a 1978 law that is gradually lifting federal price controls on gas deposits discovered since 1977. Under the law, the price of this "new" gas is being allowed to increase each year until 1985 at a rate equal to the rate of inflation plus 4 percent; in 1985, all price controls will be lifted. The Congress is considering a number of bills regarding gas pricing, including legislation that would phase out price limits on all gas, both "old" and "new."

According to the aasa, 80 percent of the urban districts surveyed rely solely on natural gas for heating and cooling--a "significantly higher" percentage than smaller districts as revealed by a 1980 survey. But this reliance varies from a mean low of 49 percent in the northeast and middle-atlantic regions to almost 100 percent in the Southwest.

During the 1980-81 school year, the survey found, the average urban district paid $1.15 million for natural gas; by the 1982-83 school year, that figure rose to $1.99 million--a 73.4-percent increase. Public utilities have warned school officials to expect a 19-percent average increase in the price they pay for gas during the current school year and a 20-percent average increase next year, the association said.

Midwestern school districts were told to expect the biggest increases in the cost of natural gas--91.88 percent--during the three-year period from 1982-83 to 1984-85. Average annual school-district costs for natural gas are also higher in this region than anywhere else in the country--about $2.92 million per district in the 1982-83 school year.

Approximately 65 percent of the districts in this region said they would have to lay off personnel, seek addditional tax revenues, and employ new energy-conservation techniques to cover their rapidly increasing heating bills.

The survey found that very few urban districts have the ability to reduce their reliance on natural gas for heating. Only 26 percent of the districts have classrooms that can be heated by other fuels, such as coal or fuel oil. The survey also pointed out that it is very expensive to install heating systems that switch from one fuel to another, especially in the older buildings of the Northeast and Midwest.

The survey also noted that although the respondents expected to cover 27 percent of the gas-price increases through energy-conservation methods, such methods are often expensive even though they pay for themselves over time. "Thus, even saving fuel will cost the districts," it noted.

"For the five-year period under study, 1980-85, decontrolling the price of natural gas is expected to cost urban school systems $848 million," the association said in its report. "The deregulation of natural gas presents a dilemma between competing policy goals, i.e., to improve education and to ensure a sta-ble supply of natural gas. Congress must seek policy alternatives that do not harm the public schools' ability to provide quality education."

Copies of the report, "Fiscal Impact of Natural Gas Deregulation on Urban School Systems," are available for $5 from the American Association of School Administrators, 1801 N. Moore St., Arlington, Va. 22209.

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