Soaring Utility Bills Put Calif. Schools In Budgetary Bind
Many California school districts say that they likely will have to deplete budget reserves or make cuts in student programs to keep up with the soaring cost of utilities stemming from a statewide energy crisis.
Ninety-seven percent of the 154 districts surveyed recently by the California Association of School Business Officials reported that they face unbudgeted increases in energy costs. And 85 percent said that those unexpected costs threaten expenditures tied directly to student instruction.
At the 7,200- student Whittier City School District in Los Angeles County, for example, officials say gas bills have recently jumped as much as four times the amount of previous bills.
"We've already sent out fliers and talked to principals and custodians about turning off lights, heaters, and computers at night," said Rita Dixon, the district's assistant superintendent of business.
The CASBO survey, conducted online over a four-day period last month and released Jan. 8, revealed that the rising energy costs are of great concern to many school business officials, said Kevin Gordon, the association's executive director.
"While individual consumers have been very concerned about the impact of the energy crisis on themselves, there's been some lack of understanding that public institutions are going to be hit very hard," Mr. Gordon said.
In the rural, 900-student Esparto district near Sacramento, officials anticipate that energy bills will rise 30 percent to 40 percent, or $20,000 more than last year—a major hit for a small district operating within tight margins, said David R. Beeskau, the district's chief business official.
"We may go into our budget reserves, or look at deferring other purchases until next year," Mr. Beeskau said. "You have to say, 'Well, we planned on it, but maybe we can't afford that this year.'"
Relief in Sight?
Gov. Gray Davis focused considerable attention on the energy crisis in his State of the State Address last week, characterizing a 4-year-old electricity-deregulation initiative as a "colossal and dangerous failure" that has pinched power supplies even as demand has grown.
Consequently, natural gas prices have risen steadily in the state, and California officials recently approved a temporary hike in electricity prices to help shore up the state's largest utility companies, which are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.
In his $104 billion budget plan for fiscal 2002, Mr. Davis proposed $1 billion to help respond to the energy crisis, including a $250 million conservation effort. He has urged state lawmakers to enact other measures to stabilize the price and supply of electricity.
The budget also included a significant increase in education spending, though Mr. Gordon said that much of that money is earmarked for specific programs and will not cover districts' rising energy costs for the current and upcoming fiscal years.
"We're probably going to ask the legislature for some one-time money to backfill the impact of the energy crisis on the current year, and an ongoing cost-of-living adjustment to reflect the longer-term impact of the energy crunch," Mr. Gordon said.
Legislators are considering several relief measures, said Robert Oakes, a spokesman for state Sen. Tom Torlakson. The senator, a teacher for 25 years, recently encouraged legislative leaders to incorporate money for energy-conservation projects in schools into a proposed school facilities bond.
"We have to find immediate, short-term relief in cooperation with the governor, but we also need to look at long-range solutions," Mr. Oakes said. "We know schools are hurting, and we'd like to help."
Vol. 20, Issue 18, Page 19