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Schools Grapple With Soaring Fuel Costs

 

With fuel prices rising to budget-breaking levels, school officials are re-tooling their spending plans to help cover the costs. Some have cut back on bus service, lowered building temperatures, and are looking at long-range remedies. Included: Suggestions for saving fuel.

Teachers and students are going to be bundling up more this winter. And that's just in the classrooms.

Soaring prices for diesel fuel, gas, and oil already are stretching and rending school budgets all over the country, and sending administrators scrambling for ways to conserve energy and reduce costs in other areas.

Eliminating or consolidating bus routes, discontinuing or cutting back on field trips, considering four-day weeks, and lowering building temperatures are some of the measures school leaders are employing so far to stay within budget or minimize any deficits.

The Cincinnati Public Schools has formed an energy conservation task force, overseen by the chief operations officer, that includes facilities people, students, and custodial staff.

Costs for heating fuel also will take a bigger dent out of household and school budgets. Since most school buildings are larger than the average house, districts are looking at some big bills.

Districts are not wasting any time tackling the problem. The Cincinnati Public Schools has formed an energy conservation task force, overseen by the chief operations officer, that includes facilities people, students, and custodial staff, according to Christine Wolff, a spokeswoman for the district.

"They are looking at little and big ways to conserve fuel," Wolff said.

FEWER BUSES, LONGER TRIPS

Transportation is one of the primary areas most school districts are reviewing to save money.

The New Britain (Connecticut) Public Schools already is expecting a shortfall in its bus fuel budget this year, assistant superintendent for business and operations Ronald Jakubowski told Education World. The school district still has field trips, but administrators are asking trip organizers for $25 per bus for all field trips to help with fuel costs, he said.

Rural districts in particular often find they have to make difficult choices.

In the S&S Consolidated Independent School District, a small rural district in Sadler, Texas, the middle school has shortened some of its bus routes by 15 percent in order to save fuel, according to middle school principal Lee Yeager. Many students now are on the buses for longer periods of time to and from school each day.

Field trips also have been cut and professional travel reduced, Yeager said. "This impacts students as they have fewer opportunities for out-of-class learning experiences," he added.

Dr. Layne B. Hunt, principal of Fair Plain Renaissance Middle School in Benton Harbor, Michigan, said his school has had to reduce the number of student field trips because of high fuel prices. "This will have an affect on both the morale of the students and staff, and it can also lessen the effectiveness of some of the lessons our teachers are attempting to teach," Dr. Hunt told Education World. "What I have done is explore new ways of bringing those types of experiences into the classroom through distance learning awareness; using the Internet for certain types of lessons, and even having a speaker or presenter come to our building."

The Little Miami School District in Morrow, Ohio, had to eliminate all field trips for the second year in a row, and dropped items from the general budget to help cover fuel costs, said superintendent Daniel Bennet. All bus routes are being reviewed and adjusted to maximize efficiency and capacity, and buses are not permitted to idle or warm up.

"We are looking at everything," Bennet told Education World. "We contemplated going to a four-day week, but that is not permitted in Ohio. We're also not allowed to charge for transportation."

The number of buses has been reduced, and by next year, the district expects to transport even fewer students by using the state's minimum requirement for transporting students in grades K-8 and providing no buses for high school students.

Students also must pay this year to play sports, and buses that take students to away games are required to wait for the students rather than come back after the game.

"We are looking at everything," says Daniel Bennet, superintendent of the Little Miami School District "We contemplated going to a four-day week, but that is not permitted in Ohio. We're also not allowed to charge for transportation."

KEEPING ROUTES FLUID

Some districts have turned to technology to monitor and organize their bus fleets. Staff members in the transportation department of the Round Rock Independent School District in Round Rock, Texas, use a Geographic Information System (GIS) to make bus routes as efficient as possible and find the best places for bus stops. "We've been challenged to reduce the number of vehicles," said the district's transportation director, Dan Roberts "We've always been doing that, but now we are doing it more intensely."

The district has 42 schools over 110 square miles, and runs 150 bus routes a day, according to Roberts. The maximum ride time for students is an hour, and the department tries to keep most trips to between 35 and 40 minutes each way.

The GIS allows staff members to monitor what is going on in the field, and adjust and eliminate routes and stops as needed. The office re-routes between 3 and 5 percent of the regular routes every week, said Roberts. The district alerts parents by e-mail daily about what routes have been changed, and has ensured that all parents have e-mail access.

"There are some challenges to doing it this way, but we can be a lot more efficient," he said.

"We've been challenged to reduce the number of vehicles," says the Round Rock Independent School District transportation director, Dan Roberts "We've always been doing that, but now we are doing it more intensely."

Staggering the start times of the elementary, middle, and high schools also helps keep the number of buses and fuel consumption down, because each bus driver is able to do three bus runs a day, Roberts said.

The district started using GIS about seven years ago, and now members of Round Rock's transportation department consult in other school districts on routing efficiency, setting up a GIS, and demographics. The money earned from consulting is used to supplement the transportation department budget.

Most districts don't take the time to analyze their transportation systems, but doing so could save money and time, Roberts noted. "Transportation has been left out of planning," he told Education World. "Because it's run behind the scenes, no one realizes the expenses, so they don't upgrade. People don't pay attention to it that much."

LEARNING TO LOVE LAYERS

Besides transportation costs, potential heating expenses for this year already are worrying school officials, and some already are telling students and staff to dress for cooler temperatures.

The New Britain public schools announced in mid-October that it would be setting the temperature a degree lower in all of the district's 15 buildings, said Jakubowski. "The state minimum temperature [for schools] is between 68 and 72 degrees; we'll be closer to the 68-degree mark," he told Education World.

School officials began notifying parents of the change in October. "We're already telling parents that children will need to dress appropriately and dress in layers," Jakubowski said. "They need to layer clothes so they can take a layer off if they are warm."

"The state minimum temperature [for schools] is between 68 and 72 degrees; we'll be closer to the 68-degree mark," says New Britain Public Schools' assistant superintendent for business and operations Ronald Jakubowski.

At Fair Plain Renaissance Middle School, people are noticing a temperature drop. "We have lowered our daytime thermometers to 72 degrees, which can cause some staff and students to complain about the chill in the building," said the principal, Dr. Hunt. "However, there were those arguing that the temperature should be set at 68 degrees."

In the Rochester (New Hampshire) School District, the heat still was not on in mid-October, despite some chilly mornings, said Martha Wingate, principal of Gonic Elementary School. "We're all bundling up and making sure we're dressing in layers," Wingate told Education World. "At least we had a warm start to the year."

Some advance planning by district staff members will help save energy this winter. Energy-conserving light bulbs were installed in all ten schools. The district's oldest schools, including Gonic, which was built in 1897, will have new windows designed to reduce drafts, Wingate said.

"Because our administration and maintenance department prepared for the reality of rising fuel costs, we have been able to keep our programs and buses running -- so far," she added. "Let's hope we don't have a rough winter."

Officials in the Little Miami District still are working on a plan to conserve heating fuel, but they have some ideas, said Bennet, the superintendent. "We have a policy to close schools when it reaches a particular temperature and humidity level," he said. "We'll probably set up a similar policy for cost -- if we get to a certain point, we could close extra days in the winter if costs rise too much."

ADVANTAGES OF RENEWABLE FUEL

While not an option for this winter, districts could consider converting to alternative or renewable energy sources for the future, which has helped some school systems keep their costs down.

The Barron Area School District in Barron, Wisconsin, has used a wood burning boiler to heat two of its six schools since 1981. The boiler, which was installed in 1981 at a cost of $360,000, has been saving about $100,000 in heating costs every year, said district administrator Monte Hallberg. "It's been a blessing; it's helped us get through the winters," Hallberg told Education World.

The district just spent $40,000 on upgrades and repairs for the boiler, that included automating it, and now it is operating more efficiently than it ever did, he said. "We're using it more, but burning less wood."

The boiler is located in the high school, and serves the high school, a large elementary school, a medical clinic, a nursing home, and the local hospital. Meters measure the amount of steam each facility uses. If the hospital, for example, uses 40 percent of the steam, it pays for 40 percent of the wood chips.

"The price of wood has gone up, but it's still about one-third the cost of using gas," according to Hallberg. The district's other four schools use gas, because they are out of range of the steam lines, he said. District officials really noticed the impact of the boiler during the 2000-01 school year, when the boiler was off-line because it needed repairs. All the schools used gas that year, and the district's fuel costs doubled, he said.

The boiler has held up well in the face of Wisconsin winters. Last winter was considered mild, Hallberg said, but there have been winters when the temperature did not get above 0 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 consecutive days.

SEEING THE FUTURE

The district has a forward-looking school board member to thank for the boiler. Back in the 1970s, during the energy crisis, the board member, who still lives in town, warned school officials and the community that fossil fuel resources were being depleted. He suggested the schools turn to a renewable energy source, like wood.

Barron now has its own wood chipper, and staff members are investigating partnering with a company that makes utility poles. The school system would use the shavings and trimmings from the poles for fuel.

The school board also has approved a plan to investigate using steam from the wood- burning boiler to power air conditioning in some of the buildings, Hallberg said.

Most administrators, though, are in systems still dependent on fossil fuels, and are just hoping that fuel prices and Mother Nature will be kind to their budgets.

"We're hoping for a mild winter," said New Britain's Jakubowski.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

 

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World
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