School systems contending with rising costs of energy

Friday, June 4, 2004

Open windows, dripping faucets, antiquated light fixtures -- when it comes to lowering energy costs in school districts, no potential savings is too small to explore.

School districts spend large sums of money each month on natural gas, electricity and vehicle fuel, and as with consumers across the country, increases in those costs are strongly felt.

Local administrators say they're doing everything they can to save on energy expenditures, but factors that drive up those costs -- weather and gas prices -- make cutbacks difficult.

During the school year, the Jackson School District's fleet of 66 buses travels 3,000 miles each day. For 2003-2004, Jackson spent nearly double the amount paid in 2002-2003 for bus fuel, increasing from $53,000 to $99,000.

Almost all of that, said assistant superintendent Jim Welker, is due to the rise in gas prices.

"We always budget for the worst-case scenario, and in most cases, we'll have some money left over," Welker said. "There won't be much this year. It's hard to anticipate these kinds of prices."

While the Cape Girardeau School District contracts its transportation services with the bus company First Student, increasing gas prices still impact the district budget, said assistant superintendent and chief financial officer Rob Huff.

As part of the transportation contract, the district pays the difference to First Student for diesel that costs over $1.25 per gallon. For example, diesel cost $1.39 a gallon in December, when First Student purchased around 3,500 gallons. The district paid 14 cents per gallon, or $490, to make up the difference.

In April, diesel prices had risen to $1.64 a gallon, leaving the district to make up a difference of 39 cents, or a total of $1,300.

Huff said the only way to trim transportation costs is to alter bus routes, something officials considered doing earlier this year as part of district-wide budget cuts. This would have cut back on bus routes, making children living near schools in certain neighborhoods find other transportation.

However, upon weighing the potential savings against the hazards of more children walking to school, officials dismissed the plan.

In Scott City, superintendent Diann Bradshaw-Ulmer said her district hasn't been affected too much by the rise in gas prices.

There are cost-cutting measures for other energy expenses, and with an average $30,000 monthly electric bill, Cape Girardeau and Jackson schools are constantly trying to improve efficiency, officials say.

Electricity and natural gas make up about 2 percent of Cape Girardeau's annual budget, or around $800,000 in 2003-2004. In Jackson, those two items cost around $500,000 this past school year, also around 2 percent of the budget.

In both Jackson and Cape Girardeau, school districts are trying to improve energy efficiency by adding insulation to buildings, replacing older light fixtures and single-pane windows and setting thermostats at a constant temperature for all buildings. Scott City may also consider retrofitting some lighting to increase efficiency in the future.

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, ext. 128

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