School Climate & Safety

Energy-Conscious Districts Take Rising Winter Fuel Costs in Stride

By Mark Stricherz — November 01, 2000 4 min read

It used to be that when the weather turned frightful, some school districts had to dismiss employees or go to a four-day week in order to heat their buildings. But while this winter is expected to be cold and heating-fuel costs are projected to be high, the only likely effect this school year will be thinner pocketbooks, many education officials said last week.

Despite earlier warnings about soaring energy costs, school leaders in several Midwestern states voiced confidence about meeting this upcoming season’s demands. Many had feared the problem would be especially acute in that region, because of high gasoline prices over the summer.

But education officials say budget surpluses and energy-saving programs are likely to prevent the kind of predicament that forced them to take dire measures during the fuel crunches of the 1970s and ‘80s.

"[The energy situation] has not been really raised by our members as a national problem,” said Don I. Tharpe, the executive director of the Association of School Business Officials in Reston, Va., which provides programs and services to 6,000 assistant superintendents.

“It’s like another iceberg off the bow,” said Thomas E. White, the executive director of the Michigan School Business Officials. “We’re not at the crisis stage yet. People are starting to be concerned, but I’m not hearing a hue and cry.”

False Alarms?

Such sanguine responses contrast sharply with remarks made earlier this year, when some school leaders pointed to what they said were two alarming trends.

One was steep gasoline prices, which had soared to around $2 a gallon over the spring and summer in the Midwest. Some district officials considered cutting the number of school bus trips. In Florida’s 350,000-student Miami-Dade County system, officials said higher gas prices would cost them about $1 million this year. (“School Districts Contending With Increased Fuel Costs,” March 15, 2000). Since then, however, gas prices have dropped. In Milwaukee, for example, gas now costs $1.55 a gallon, compared with $1.90 last summer.

Heating oil, though, will be costlier this winter than last year. The price of heating oil closed at 97.5 cents a gallon on Oct. 25, compared with 60 cents a year ago, according to Ron Gold, a spokesman for the Petroleum Research Foundation in New York City. While schools buy heating oil in bulk, wholesale prices are roughly similar, Mr. Gold said.

Districts also were on alert because cold winter weather was expected to resume, after what the National Weather Service said were three years of the mildest winters on record. Temperatures in the Upper Midwest and much of the Northeast are predicted to be 5 to 6 degrees colder than last year.

Mr. White of the Michigan School Business Officials warned that if very cold conditions prevail, some districts, especially those in the Midwest and East, may have to cut costs dramatically next year.

But that scenario is unlikely to unfold this year. School officials said they have either taken steps to conserve energy or have benefited from favorable circumstances.

In Milwaukee, the school system may consider dropping some weekend community events if the situation gets bad this winter, said J. Chojnacki, the manager of the 102,000-student district’s environmental-services program.

For some Iowa districts, budget surpluses will ease the pain of higher fuel costs. Because state law requires districts to operate in the black, education leaders in the Des Moines public schools said they can easily afford the roughly $600,000 in extra fuel costs they anticipate

“We’re in a financial position that it’s not going to derail our plan,” said Christine Van Meter, the chief financial officer of the 32,000-student system, which operates 161 schools.

She noted that the district has $13.9 million in untapped funds, mostly savings from closing older schools and laying off some administrators.

For many districts, energy-saving measures have been the standard operating practice for years.

Charles Kyte, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administers, attributes that habit to lessons learned from the energy crises of the 1970s.

In Chicago, public school officials said they turn lights off and turn the heat down. As a result, classrooms are at 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 3 to 10 degrees cooler at night.

It’s measures like that, said Donald Barnes, the energy manager for the 430,000- student system, that have cut energy consumption by 25 million to 28 million kilowatt hours this year, compared with three years ago.

In Milwaukee, as in many other districts, most buildings are heated with natural gas. As Mr. Chojnacki notes, the substance is not only a clean-burning fuel, but also rather cheap.

In addition, leaders of big-city school systems noted that even if fuel costs rise this year, they remain only a sliver of their overall costs.

And for nearly all Midwestern districts, this fall’s Indian summer has helped save money.

“It’s 10 degrees warmer today than it usually is,” Mr. Chojnacki said on a recent 60-degree day.

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