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Published in Print: January 31, 2001, as Calif. Energy Crisis Predicted To Sap Budgets

Calif. Energy Crisis Predicted To Sap Budgets

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Voicing growing dismay, California school officials said last week that the state's power crisis will quickly drain districts' pocketbooks.

The worsening electricity crunch is expected to last months and prove costly to consumers, experts say. In addition, some state school officials are worried that their local counterparts may be overlooking the problem's magnitude.

State officials sounded one note of alarm after a seminar held last week in Sacramento by the California Department of Education to provide information about the crisis to Northern California districts. Tony Hesch, a field representative for the agency, said the 140 participants in attendance were surprisingly uninformed.

"There was an awful lot of disbelief from the audience," Mr. Hesch said. "I think by the time it ended, there was a feeling that this was a situation that needed to be ended right now."

California's energy woes stem largely from a 1996 decision by the state to partially deregulate its market for electricity. Designed mainly to cut consumers' electric bills, deregulation has instead translated this year and last into "rolling blackouts" and higher utility costs. ("California Schools Lose Power as Energy Crisis Deepens," Jan. 24, 2001.)

Mr. Hesch fretted that those who missed the Jan. 23 event in Sacramento were likely to misread the energy crisis.

"There are still a lot of people who believe this is a manufactured crisis and not a distribution problem," Mr. Hesch said. "The reality is, this problem has gotten worse significantly."

To educate district officials, Mr. Hesch and others offered tips on how to conserve energy. Their suggestions included turning off lights when classrooms are not in use, consolidating activities during weekends and at night in one room, and devising a plan to cut energy costs.

Request for Exemption

A few days earlier, a California group representing district financial officers said the cost of the energy crunch would be "extraordinary." The group had sent a survey by e-mail to the state's 1,000 districts; 225 responded.

Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials, said districts would likely need an extra $150 million to $200 million this school year to cover mushrooming natural gas and electricity bills.

"That's incredible," Mr. Gordon said. "It's just a very, very large utility bill."

He said 40 percent of the districts that responded to the survey indicated that they had already run through their budget reserves for the school year.

"That means that either these are extraordinary bills or there are other costs eating up their reserves," Mr. Gordon said. His group has petitioned the state legislature to pay for the expected higher costs.

As of late last week, California school officials seemed pessimistic about the prospects for quick relief.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin sent a letter Jan. 19 to the state Public Utilities Commission asking that schools be exempted from rolling electrical blackouts or energy rationing. But a spokesman for Ms. Eastin said there's little hope.

A spokesman for the utilities commission said officials were still examining the request.

Vol. 20, Issue 20, Page 10

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