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Published in Print: January 24, 2001, as California Schools Lose Power As Energy Crisis Deepens

California Schools Lose Power As Energy Crisis Deepens

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Teachers taught by lantern and flashlight at International Polytechnic High School this month, as the Pomona, Calif., school was hit by the intermittent power outages plaguing the state.

For five hours on Jan. 11, the school got much of its light from items usually associated with camping or gravedigging.

Hundreds of miles north, at Hawes Elementary School in Redwood City, students faced no such hurdles when a roughly hourlong blackout struck on Jan. 18.

"All of our classrooms have lots of daylight, and it’s a bright day today, so things were fine—although obviously overhead projectors were not able to be used," Principal Bernardo Vidales said.

So it went in California schools that have endured recent rationings of electric power. Hit like other consumers with the effects of a worsening state energy crisis, schools have responded in a number of ways. Many kept classrooms open, while some opted to send students home early.

School districts in the Peninsula south of San Francisco, parts of Southern California, and rural sections of the state appeared to be most likely to lose power, according to news reports and school officials.

Superintendent of Public Instrution Delaine Eastin last week sent a letter to the president of the state Public Utilities Commission saying she was "gravely concerned" about the potential closure of schools due to the energy crisis.

Ms. Eastin called on the commission to ask local power companies to exempt schools from the outages or to interrupt power service to areas containing schools only when students were not on campus.

In addition, she called for the commission to work with her department to provide financial assistance to districts "so they do not have to close schools solely to pay their energy bills."

Some districts, she noted, have seen their bills increase more than a hundredfold.

"It is unconscionable that students are being deprived of instructional time during the school day simply because the school district does not have the financial resources to keep the heat and lights on," she wrote.

A recent survey of 154 California districts found that the vast majority of them faced unbudgeted increases in energy costs because of the current crunch. ("Soaring Utility Bills Put Calif. Schools In Budgetary Bind," Jan. 17, 2001.)

The 1,400-student Susanville district, for example, faces proposed increases that would more than double its energy costs. In an open letter to his community, Superintendent Mark Evans wrote that such rate hikes could result in teacher layoffs next school year.

A Bad Deal

California’s energy woes stem in large part from a 1996 decision by the state to partially deregulate the market for electricity. Utility companies were hit last year by unexpectedly steep rises in wholesale prices, while most retail prices remained capped.

Meanwhile, districts that reached special deals with utility companies, under which they could reap greater savings in exchange for greater risk, have been particularly hurt in the current situation.

One school system that cut such a deal, and is now reeling from its effects, is the 18,500-student Antelope Valley Union High School District.

Officials there released students at noon on Jan. 16 rather than pay exorbitant rates for power. Under the terms of its agreement with Southern California Edison, the district must pay $9.30 per kilowatt hour for energy when the power company reaches a Stage 3 alert, meaning that it is running low on power. The district normally pays 20 cents per kilowatt hour.

The next two days, the district opted to pay steeper rates to keep the lights on—at a cost of $160,000 to $170,000 a day, said Larry M. Freise, a spokesman for the district.

"It’s a pretty severe situation," Mr. Freise said. "We’re almost being held hostage."

The only consolation, he said, is that the district has accrued a budget surplus of $6 million to $7 million.

In the San Francisco Bay area last week, districts appeared to be faring better, although some had undergone blackouts.

The 9,900-pupil South San Francisco Unified district was one of those. Five of its 18 schools were powerless for 60 to 90 minutes, said Superintendent George A. Kozitza. "There was enough light to continue," Mr. Kozitza said. "Computers were obviously down, but that was about it."

Vol. 20, Issue 19, Page 5

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