Schools Feel Pinch Of Rising Utility Bills

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Just a few months after being battered by rising gas prices, school systems around the region and across the country are grappling with a new wrinkle: higher than anticipated heating and utility bills.

The same forces -- soaring prices for natural gas and heating oil -- that are affecting consumers are hitting area school systems just as they begin to lay out spending priorities for the next year.

In Anne Arundel County, for example, the cost of a gallon of heating oil has more than doubled, from 87 cents a gallon to $2.07 a gallon, adding $2.4 million to heating oil costs, officials estimate.

"We're finding that our natural gas, our fuel, diesel and gasoline have skyrocketed," said Evan Mohler, assistant superintendent for support services for the Loudoun County school system, which is just beginning its budget process. "We're seeing the same things people are seeing at the pump."

Fairfax County will not release its budget until January, but already officials there are projecting higher heating bills.

"We expect utility cost increases to be well over double what they were estimated at in the fiscal forecast we had last July," said system spokesman Paul Regnier.

The federal Energy Information Administration is forecasting that households nationwide will see an average increase of 24 percent in winter heating bills. Multiplying that by the number of classrooms that must be heated in such school systems as Prince George's and Howard counties provides a quick sense of the dilemma school officials are facing.

In Montgomery County, officials anticipated many things: Maryland's largest school system would be opening five more campuses next fall, and it would expand its all-day kindergarten program to 17 more schools, for instance.

But they did not anticipate paying an additional $10 million to keep classrooms heated and the lights on.

"We knew about the schools a year ago," Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said of the planning that went into the fiscal 2007 budget, which he is expected to unveil tonight in a speech at Rockville High School. "But we didn't know about energy costs."

School officials across the region say they have worked hard to improve efficiency -- installing timers that control heating and air conditioning systems and buying more fuel-efficient buses. But when costs spike as they have this year, they find themselves in a difficult position.

"There's not a lot that can be done," said Marshall Spatz, director of the Department of Management, Budget and Planning for Montgomery County public schools. "You can't choose not to heat the buildings, so you're just stuck."

Because most school systems are just beginning their budget process, it is unclear what effect, if any, the higher utility costs will have on programs. In Montgomery, officials said they do not anticipate any programs being affected.

The higher-than-expected heating costs have added to existing anxiety about rising gas prices that hit many systems hard over the summer. Walter George, supervisor of operations for the Anne Arundel system, said gas prices have risen about 33 percent for his system, though he described the cost as "minuscule" compared with what it will pay for heating oil.

In Montgomery, officials are anticipating that utility costs will increase from $30 million last year to $40 million in this year's budget. In addition, the cost of keeping the system's 1,200 buses running is expected to rise by $2 million.

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