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High energy costs squeeze schools' budgets

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Principals, teachers and students are being urged to turn off lights and lower thermostats in St. Paul schools. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
High heating costs this winter could mean cooler classrooms and tighter budgets for many Minnesota school districts. In a year when public schools got a big boost in state funding, rising natural gas prices might force school leaders to spend thousands of dollars they hadn't planned on. District officials in St. Paul are hoping to ease the financial impact some with energy conservation measures in every school building.

St. Paul, Minn. — When Minnesota school districts finalized their budgets for the current school year last June, they built in spending for heating that could fall short this winter.

In St. Paul, the annual spending plan included $7.5 million to pay for the electricity, fuel oil and natural gas needed in 80 buildings. School district officials now say that allocation will not cover the actual costs. Pat Quinn, the district's executive director of operations, says hurricane damage to the Gulf Coast is causing energy prices to soar.

"The two big questions are, how much more is it going to cost us, and where is the money going to come from?" Quinn says.

For now, St. Paul schools are planning on at least a 34 percent jump in heating costs alone. That's $1.3 million more than last year. The exact increase is still unknown, but Quinn says any added expense will be covered through the district's general fund or budget reserve.

In the meantime, he says the district is stepping up its energy conservation efforts. Principals, teachers and students are being urged to turn off lights and lower thermostats. They've also removed light bulbs from vending machines. Quinn says every building is a challenge.

"There are some buildings that we know just through practice are harder to heat," Quinn says. "And if you knock them down to 65, it's going to be 58 degrees in some places, which gets to be pretty untenable. Other buildings, you can set to 64 and it's 65 throughout the building and we're saving energy."

St. Paul's Groveland Park Elementary School was built in 1930. The school district has spent a lot of money in recent years to increase energy efficiency in its older buildings. Principal Cleva Jobe points out some recent improvements.

"One of the things that they did while they were doing all this new lighting up here is they also lowered the ceilings," Jobe says. "These were probably six feet higher. They were very high ceilings, and that should also impact the energy and the heat costs in here."

There are posters in the hallways and stickers above every light switch reminding students and staff to help conserve energy. New motion sensors and timers will also reduce the use of lights. Jobe says she expects to lower the temperature in classrooms to 65 degrees.

"I think they'll notice that they'll need to have a sweater on," Jobe says. "But other than that I think it would be adequate."

School districts throughout the region are facing similar energy challenges. A recent survey by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts found six suburban school systems are expecting heating costs to jump by 50 percent or higher. Elk River and the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale districts both projected 80 percent increases.

Scott Croonquist, AMSD executive director, says district leaders have little if any flexibility in their budgets at this time of year. He says most superintendents will be forced to tap into their fund balances to cover the higher heating costs.

"Most of them, their fund balance is running so low anyway right now, that it puts them kind of in a danger zone where they're going to be bordering on statutory operating debt and having cash flow problems if they have to deplete their reserves," Croonquist says.

Croonquist says districts are still dealing with cost projections, so the true impact won't be clear for a few months.

School districts that operate their own buses are facing an additional challenge with rising diesel fuel prices.

Croonquist says the financial strain could result in AMSD asking state lawmakers to consider some type of energy relief package for schools.