School Climate & Safety

St. Paul Schools Target Classroom Appliances

By Bess Keller — January 03, 2006 2 min read
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When administrators in St. Paul, Minn., announced a policy to have school district employees voluntarily either unplug or pay for small appliances used in classrooms, they found the temperature dropping between them and some teachers.

Faced with soaring heating costs that are expected to put the 44,000-student district $2.4 million in the hole by spring, acting Superintendent Lou Kanavati has encouraged staff members to remove personally owned refrigerators, microwave ovens, space heaters, coffee pots, and window air conditioners from schools “wherever possible.”

But for appliances that remain, he asked employees to make a $25 “contribution” to offset the costs of running the appliances, which district administrators estimated would total almost $120,000 for the year. The annual costs per appliance varied from $22 for a microwave oven to $75 for a coffee pot, they said.

To some teachers, the memo had a “so this is the thanks we get” quality.

“The insulting part for them was the memo had no acknowledgment of the working conditions that necessitated these appliances in the first place,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the president of the 4,200-member St. Paul Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Patrick Quinn, the district’s executive director of operations, said no offense was meant. Rather, he said, the policy was primarily intended to draw attention to energy use. He said that the while the cost of electricity was not soaring like that of natural gas, overall conservation was warranted because “every dollar spent on electricity or gas can’t be spent on the classroom.”

The district’s operating budget this school year is $468 million, of which $7.5 million goes to energy costs.

Wider Concern

Other districts in the Twin Cities area and elsewhere, struggling with same problem, have banned such appliances.

In fact, school managers across the country are searching for ways to cut energy costs, including dialing back thermostats, as prices for natural gas and other heating fuels rise. (“As Winter Settles in, Schools Explore Ways to Cut Energy Bills,” Dec. 14, 2005.)

The St. Paul public schools have lowered the heating temperature from a range of 72 to 75 degrees to a range of 66 to 70 degrees, depending on the building, Mr. Quinn said.

Among the teachers Ms. Ricker has heard from are one who uses a coffee pot to make hot chocolate for students in the safety patrol when they come in from outside, another who keeps items that are sold for fund raising in a mini-fridge, and a third whose northeast-facing classroom “never gets much above 60” except for the spot by her desk where she has a space heater.

“Every teacher I talked with understood the message of conservation,” the union president said. “But they really wanted to be part of the solution.”

She said she proposed to the school board last month that an employee committee at each school craft a conservation plan for the building.

Mr. Quinn countered that each school already has a trained “conservation coordinator,” and that while the district has been willing to listen to energy-saving ideas from teachers and others, “not a lot of them are coming forth.”

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