Education

Energy Alternatives

By Laura Donnelly — August 12, 2006 2 min read
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With fuel, heating oil, and electricity costs all increasing while budgets continue to tighten, what’s a school district to do? Across the country, the answers are conservation, collaboration, and creative problem-solving.

In Hartland Township, Michigan, high school environmental science students drafted the Michigan Green Schools Bill last year. Governor Jennifer Granholm signed it into law in May, after the bill passed the state House and Senate. Michigan schools wishing to be designated as “green” can follow set requirements for recycling, increasing energy efficiency, and educating students about ecology. Sticking to the guidelines will save up to 5 percent of each building’s annual energy costs—no small change, considering that Hartland High School spent $327,000 on electricity in 2005-06.

The Belen Consolidated Schools district in New Mexico is making a more focused effort, by reevaluating school bus routes and combining stops, to save fuel and wear and tear on its fleet. In the past, a bus would “go 50 yards, stop, pick up one kid, go. …That’s going to be over,” says Frank Romero, district transportation coordinator. Romero would much rather save money through smarter bus-use strategies than by cutting field trips. “We used to warm up the buses for 15 minutes. We’re trying to cut that in half. It’s amazing how much fuel you use, idling for that long,” he explains.

School Administrative District 11 in Gardiner, Maine, enlisted outside help after it was invited by a local power company to join a consortium of school districts and private businesses to attract lower bids for heating oil. The district has locked in a price of $2.29 per gallon of oil for the year. Sure, there’s some risk of losing money if oil prices suddenly go down, superintendent Paul Knowles acknowledges. “But being in the northeast, winters are cold. And fuel prices don’t often go down.”

In Shawnee, Kansas, the proposed answer to unpredictable fuel prices is an increase in physical activity. The Kansas Department of Transportation awarded a grant to two elementary schools for a “walking school bus”—basically an adult walking escort— to be implemented in 2007-08. Students living within one mile of each school can hop on the “bus,” which will be “driven,” or led, by trained city employees and, eventually, parent volunteers. Mike Stithem, principal of Clear Creek Elementary, one of the pilot schools, said he’s hoping the program will serve two purposes: cut down on driving trips and encourage more physical activity among students. “I think a lot of parents,” he adds, “would be really happy not to be sitting in the car loop twice a day.”

In Utah, the rising cost of fuel is actually a boon for school districts. All of the state’s public schools receive money through Utah Trust Lands, which can be sold or leased by the state for income-producing uses—mostly oil and natural gas development. “In 2004-05, we sent out $9.7 million to schools. In 2005-06, $14 million was distributed. That’s an increase of 44 percent,” reports Trust Fund Lands spokesman David Hebertson. While state law requires that the money be used for educational enhancement—not paying districts’ fuel bills—Hebertson says parents and teachers are beginning to notice the connection. “They’re glad the benefits have increased.”

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