[Nameplate] Overcast ~ 65°F  
High: 72°F ~ Low: 59°F
Tuesday, Sep. 16, 2014

Budget bite: Rising winter heating costs are putting the crunch on area schools

Thursday, November 10, 2005

SIKESTON -- Warm November temperatures may have delayed signs of winter, but local school district officials aren't being fooled.

The school business managers know when the cold weather moves in, a hefty heating bill will be sure to follow.

"We've anticipated the increases all summer and we knew to be prepared," Sikeston R-6 Business Director Lori Boardman said. "If you heat with natural gas, you're going to have these increases."

Projected natural gas rate increases for school districts have ranged from 36 percent to 72 percent, according to Boardman.

Last winter Sikeston R-6 spent a little over $139,000 on natural gas, Boardman said. And of course not all of the buildings in Sikeston's district are heated by natural gas, she said.

"But last year was a pretty mild winter with exception of the really heavy snow around Christmas," Boardman recalled. "And the timing was perfect because we weren't in school so we just had to keep everything warm enough so the pipes didn't burst."

With current prices of natural gas, costs could double, Boardman aid. However at this point it's hard to put a dollar amount on what actual costs will be, she said.

"When you budget, you typically budget on high side," said Paul Northington, director of business and finance for New Madrid County R-1 Schools. "In June, we certainly didn't know prices would go up like they are."

Once the district gets a better feel of how the winter going, the budget can be amended, Northington said.

Boardman said Sikeston R-6 will take a similar approach.

"We have a line item approved for gas, and if we reach that limit, I will ask the board to amend the budget. The board knows that's something that's out of our control," Boardman said. "And if we didn't have our reserves, we wouldn't be able to pay for it."

New Madrid County R-1 also has some reserved balances to where if fuel costs rose by $100,000, the district would be OK, Northern said, adding the costs wouldn't be felt in the classroom.

What will help New Madrid County R-1 with heating costs this year is the geothermal, or ground source, heating and cooling system implemented into pods A and B at the high school.

The project entailed digging about 60 wells about 300 feet deep in the ground. The ground is then used as a source to the heating and cooling system.

"The water stays at constant temperature, close to room temperate, and each room has a condenser so if it gets too hot, it lowers the temperature. Conversely if you need heating, it raises the temperature," Northington said. Dr. Carter War, executive director of the Missouri School Boards' Association, said most school districts have anticipated some increases in heating bills, but very few have budgeted for 50 percent increases.

Like Sikeston and New Madrid, many school districts are being forced to use reserves or are looking at other ways to deal with these costs so the impact on classroom instruction is minimized, War said.

A law spearheaded by Missouri School Boards' Association and passed by the General Assembly in 2002 enables school districts served by natural gas utilities to purchase natural gas at a reduced cost through an aggregate purchasing program.

Three years ago the MSBA and cooperating school districts in the St. Louis area formed a consortium to save money when purchasing gas. The program saved the participating school districts about $4 million.

According to Brent Ghan, chief communications officer for MSBA, more than 120 school districts in the state participate in aggregate purchasing programs. Locally Sikeston R-6, Charleston R-1 and East Prairie R-2 are the only districts who are involved in the programs.

"Obviously when we have greater purchasing power, the school district will benefit from the savings," Boardman said.

For example, in September, Sikeston saved $229.97, which is equal to about 6 percent of the total bill for the month, Boardman said about the savings of the program.

Meanwhile, like everyone else, school officials will just keep waiting. "We're just keeping our fingers crossed," Boardman said. "We can't do anything to control the cost -- we just have to continue conserving."