Teachers in budget-stressed schools are accustomed to shelling out for paper, glue and pencils. But the staff here wasn't ready for this: a new fee for having coffee makers, microwaves and refrigerators in classrooms and offices.
While school districts nationwide are placing limits on personal appliances in an attempt to hold down energy costs, St. Paul's pay-for-plug approach appears to be unique.
In announcing the policy last month, interim Superintendent Lou Kanavati described the $25-per-appliance annual fee as one in a series of steps to save money. He said the district's energy costs this year could exceed $6 million -- far more than the $3.6 million officials budgeted.
For now, the district is asking for voluntary payment before deciding how to enforce the fee. People who pay it will receive a sticker to affix to their appliance.
Teachers, counselors and other St. Paul school employees say they're outraged. Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the local teachers union, said complaints are rolling in.
"I've been universally hearing from members who are frustrated at the least and insulted at the most," she said. "They say, 'We bring papers home to grade, and we don't charge the district for electricity at home.' "
Linda LeBoutillier, who teaches elementary school, has a microwave, refrigerator and electric pencil sharpener. She often spends her lunch hour working, so the appliances are a convenience issue.
"I may pay the fee or may reevaluate my use of a microwave and just start bringing in cold lunches," she said.
District officials say the appliances are taking a toll. In a memo to the staff, Kanavati relayed annual estimated costs of running them, ranging from $22 for a microwave to $75 for a coffee pot.
"We're really not trying to make it miserable for people. But it's burning electricity," said Patrick Quinn, executive director of operations for the district. "Our quick estimate is that it's costing us $100,000 per year."
Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, keeps track of school energy trends. She said she hasn't come across a similar strategy.
But, she added, "every school district is racking their brains for every possible way to save energy."
Indeed, school leaders nationwide are implementing energy-sparing nips and tucks, such as ordering bus drivers not to let buses idle and turning off vending machines overnight.
In northern New York, the Malone Central School District is hoping to save money by dialing down thermostats and keeping some light fixtures off. Staff members also have agreed to consolidate personal appliances.
Over holiday breaks, the 100 or so small refrigerators in the district's five buildings are cleaned out and unplugged, said David Brooks, superintendent of building and grounds.
For now, he said, there are no plans for a fee.
"We've talked about it, but it hasn't gotten that far yet," Brooks said. "If we needed to do something further to reduce [appliances], we might."
The school board in Kenosha, Wis., went much further, adopting a policy banning microwaves, coffee pots and food-making appliances in classrooms.
"It didn't seem appropriate that we were lowering temperature set points but still keeping mini-refrigerators in classrooms," said Patrick M. Finnemore, director of facilities in the southern Wisconsin district.
The change should yield $77,000 in energy savings, he said.
Through the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy, about 130 schools have received help developing more energy-efficient practices.
The alliance's Green Schools program focuses on teaching students, staff and others to change their habits, such as flipping off lights and computers when they leave the classroom. Participating schools have cut their energy use by 5 percent to 15 percent, with the savings rolled back into field trips and other perks.
Swarupa Ganguli, a senior program manager, hasn't encountered a fee-style system such as St. Paul's. She doesn't plan to advocate for it, either.
"We think that's punitive. It charges people to be more efficient," she said. "What we want to do is give them an incentive to be more efficient."