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.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Opinion The Police-Free Schools Movement Made Headway. Has It Lost Momentum?
Removing officers from school hallways plays just one small part in taking down the school policing system.
Judith Browne Dianis
4 min read
Image of lights on police cruiser
School Climate & Safety Spotlight Spotlight on Safe Reopening
In this Spotlight, review how your district can strategically apply its funding, and how to help students safely bounce back, plus more.

School Climate & Safety Video A Year of Activism: Students Reflect on Their Fight for Racial Justice at School
Education Week talks to three students about their year of racial justice activism, what they learned, and where they are headed next.
4 min read
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
Tay Andwerson, front center, Denver School Board at-large director, leads demonstrators through Civic Center Park on a march to City Park to call for more oversight of the police Sunday, June 7, 2020, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP
School Climate & Safety Interactive Which Districts Have Cut School Policing Programs?
Which districts have taken steps to reduce their school policing programs or eliminate SRO positions? And what do those districts' demographics look like? Find out with Education Week's new interactive database.
A police officer walks down a hall inside a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (images: Michael Blann/Digital/Vision; Kristen Prahl/iStock/Getty Images Plus )