Energy bills draining schools; Districts scrambling to conserve in effort to maintain budgets

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When they dropped their last monthly checks in the mail, North Texans probably thought they’d gotten through the worst of this winter’s sky-high utility bills.

But the legacy of those bills could affect taxpayers for longer than they expected. Public schools and universities are reeling from how much it is costing to keep their buildings heated this winter. Many are scrambling to find the extra cash they’ll need to pay the bills.

“We’ll just have to absorb it,” said Ian Halperin, spokesman for Mesquite ISD, which saw some schools’ gas bills soar by 170 percent. “You’ve got to pay your utility bills.”

In many school districts, energy costs are the second-largest item in their annual budgets, behind salaries. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, American primary and secondary schools spend more than $6 billion each year on energy.

A spike in gas prices and a colder-than-usual winter sent heating bills through the roof in the Dallas area; the average nonresidential gas bill in December jumped more than 137 percent from a year earlier, said TXU Electric & Gas spokesman Ray Granato.

Electricity rates also have increased for customers whose power is derived from natural gas.

Some districts were more prepared for the increase than others, but all are dealing with the aftermath. Terrell Independent School District expected higher rates and budgeted nearly twice as much money for natural gas as it did last year. But officials say they’ve needed every dollar and could go over budget.

A year ago, in January 2000, the gas bill for the entire district – eight campuses and two other buildings – was $4,400. This January, the bill for just one campus, Terrell High School, was more than $10,000.

Terrell is not alone. In Arlington, gas bills have been twice the amount budgeted, forcing the district to come up with an additional $400,000 or more. Richardson ISD expects to spend $350,000 more than expected.

Districts will be forced to either trim existing programs or dip into contingency funds. They’re also looking for ways to use less power.

“I just came from a principals’ meeting, and we’re doing all we can to encourage conservation,” said Will Jacob, Richardson ISD’s assistant superintendent for support services. “Making sure teachers turn out the lights in their classrooms. Making sure the custodians turn out the lights when they leave. A little bit here and a little bit there can mean a whole lot.”

Mr. Jacob said the district started a new electrical conservation plan this year aimed at using power more efficiently.

“We’re already seeing some savings there, but unfortunately, the gas is eating it all up,” Mr. Jacob said.

Mr. Granato of TXU said schools could take some of the same steps as residential customers to lower their bills, “things like replacing their furnace filters and putting weatherstripping around doors and windows. But there’s not much that can be done about high gas prices.”

The Department of Energy estimates that schools could save a quarter of their annual expenses with more efficient buildings. With the average American school more than 40 years old, many have energy-wasting features unthinkable in a new building, such as classroom doors that open directly outside or classroom walls made up almost entirely of windows.

As districts build new schools – many suburban Dallas districts plan to do so over the next few years – they are paying special attention to energy needs.

“You don’t have the high ceilings you used to have,” said Robert Sands, executive director of facilities for Plano ISD. “You have more double-pane windows, better sealant, better insulation, more efficient energy units. It’s quite different from the old days.”

Dallas ISD’s gas bill in December was $398,612 – an increase of nearly 170 percent over a year ago. District budget analysts say they’ll need to bump up DISD’s gas budget by 50 percent this school year.

The district also will be 10 percent over its budget for electricity costs. Between gas and electricity, the district will need to find an extra $2.5 million in the existing budget to pay its bills. Officials said they didn’t know what part of the budget would be affected.

Higher costs haven’t been limited to K-12 schools. Dallas city officials said they also have had higher bills, but that probably will be offset by a correlating increase in the franchise fees the city receives from TXU. The company pays Dallas 4 percent of gross revenues in the city to cover the cost of using public property.

Ray McFarlane, director of the University of North Texas physical plant in Denton, said electricity costs there have risen nearly 30 percent since June.

“The university has to shift funds from one area to another to keep in operation because we must have buildings open and heated or cooled,” he said.

Jerry Bond, physical plant associate director at the University of Texas at Arlington, said that in response to soaring costs, his school initiated more than a dozen cost-cutting measures late last year. Thermostats have been turned down wherever possible and people who have had individual space heaters have been asked to disconnect them.

Officials at the University of Texas at Dallas are blunt about the impact of energy costs.

“They are killing us,” said Bob Lovitt, UTD’s senior vice president for business. He said utility costs have almost doubled since August, and he expects UTD to spend $880,000 more than was budgeted for power this year.

UTD is one of several state schools asking the Legislature for additional money to help pay their bills. Legislators in Austin won’t have to look far to see an example of the power problems. Officials at UT-Austin announced this week that the campus’s landmark tower will go dark on Monday nights through May to encourage decreased use of power.

UT spokeswoman Peggy Kruger said some estimates say the campus’s utility costs over the next two years could be $30 million to $40 million over budget.

“We have to remember all those energy-saving efforts of the ’70s and realize those efforts were good not only to save money but to save our resources,” she said.

Staff writers Frank Trejo and Julie Elliott contributed to this report.

The year of living idly: With early college acceptance in hand, high school seniors find they have a license to coast

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Annie Quasnitschka has been a successful student at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst. She’s mulling admission offers from three quality universities in the Northeast.

But don’t expect her to be too stressed about schoolwork while she makes up her mind.

“I guess we’d have to study more if senior year actually counted,” the 17-year-old said. “But the colleges don’t care. The college application process takes so long that when you finally get in, you don’t want to do anything.

“We’re basically taking a whole year off.”

The senior slump is as ancient an American high school ritual as bake sales and Sadie Hawkins dances. For generations, schools have watched previously motivated students downshift into neutral.

But with colleges admitting students earlier in the academic year, rendering senior-year grades more meaningless than ever, more students are starting their slump as soon as 12th grade begins.

Opportunity wasted

A federal study released last month criticized the American senior year as a wasted opportunity, a “farewell tour of adolescence” instead of a real academic challenge. It says the senior slump is at least partially to blame for why college students fare so poorly in international comparisons and why more than a quarter of them take remedial classes.

“Students work very, very hard. These are very stressed young human beings,” said Bill McCumber, director of college counseling at St. Mark’s School of Texas. “And once their college applications go out the door, they think: ‘Phew. Maybe I can live a life now.’

“We gently remind them that that’s not the case,” he said, only half-joking.

Michael Coleman, dean of undergraduate education at the University of Texas at Dallas and chairman of the freshman admissions committee, said he recognizes the phenomenon.

“I’m a psychologist, and we talk about something called the post-reinforcement pause,” he said. “That’s when you complete something, and it’s ‘I’m in; I’m done; I’m breathing again. I’m taking a break.’ We do that throughout our lives. We work really hard, and then we take a break.”

‘Senioritis’ strikes

It’s not difficult to find evidence of the disengagement that comes with “senioritis.”

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles survey American college freshmen each year about their experiences as high school seniors. Last year, nearly 40 percent reported being frequently bored in class as seniors, up from 26 percent when the question was first asked 15 years ago.

The federal study, issued last month by the National Commission on the High School Senior Year, noted that American elementary students generally fare well when compared with their peers internationally and U.S. middle school students are about average.

But the authors say seniors lag far behind, scoring lower on standardized tests and taking less challenging course loads.

The slump can affect all seniors, including those headed for the workforce, but often the most pronounced effect is on those headed for higher education.

Early admissions

The report blames the problem, in part, on America’s college admissions calendar, saying that “practically every college-bound student is aware that serious preparation for college ends at Grade 11.”

Traditionally, colleges have set application deadlines in December or January and looked at fall-semester grades of applying seniors. Students had to sweat it out until April to see whether the envelope that arrived in their mailbox would be fat (good, packed with brochures and forms) or skinny (bad, a simple rejection).

But in the 1990s, more colleges began offering early-admission plans. Research by the College Board showed that the number of colleges with such plans went up 15 percent in the decade.

Earlier admissions serve anxious students and colleges. Students get perhaps the most stressful decisions of their young lives out of the way, and colleges get a jump on the competition for top students.

Some schools, such as Texas A&M University, don’t have formal early admissions, but students who apply earlier find out sooner whether they got in.

Joseph Estrada, assistant provost for enrollment, said that about half of the school’s acceptance letters are sent before Jan. 1.

Jaclyn Shaw, a senior at Denton High School, applied to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at the start of the school year and found out she was accepted in October.

“So I’ve known all year where I’m going,” she said. “If you know you’ve been accepted, it’s even harder to get motivated.”

She said she applied early “just so I would know. It’s been such a burden lifted off me.”

Shunning stress

Laura Cook, another Bell senior, said she poured her all into getting good grades in the year’s first grading period.

“I busted my rear end to get straight A’s,” she said. “On the weekends, I’d be so tired that all I would do is sleep.”

But the day after she dropped her college applications in the mail, her attitude changed.

“As soon as that was over, I sat there and said, ‘Now all I have to do is pass.’ I started looking around at everybody working and stressing and thought, ‘I’m just ready to move on to bigger and better things.’

“It’s harder to get motivated,” said Ms. Shaw, whose high school day starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m., though she also takes a college course on the side. “You spend less time studying.”

And what is filling up the time that she used to spend studying?

“Nothing, really. I’m just being lazy,” she said.

Tests add to problems

Even the biggest educational change of the last decade in the United States – the standardized tests required in many states for graduation – contributes to senior-year problems, according to the federal study. By requiring only a ninth- or 10th-grade level of knowledge, tests such as the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills can make the last two years of high school seem even more extraneous to students, according to the study.

One way school officials try keeping seniors out of slumps is to remind them that colleges are always free to take back admissions offers.

“The admissions letters that universities send out always have a line about how the student is admitted conditionally, awaiting a good performance in the senior year,” Dr. Coleman of UTD said.

Although colleges can yank offers, finding cases in which that happens is a little like hunting for four-leaf clovers: They’re probably out there somewhere, but best of luck tracking one down.

Mr. Estrada said he did not know of an example of A&M withdrawing an offer.

“In many cases, senior year is irrelevant in the admissions decision,” Dr. Coleman said. “I suspect nobody ever looks back at those final transcripts. I wouldn’t doubt that there’s not much checking-up that goes on, unless you mess up so bad that you don’t get enough credits to graduate.”

Mr. McCumber, an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania before arriving at St. Mark’s, said he could not recall any student’s offer being rescinded.

But if senior-year grades plummeted without explanation, students would be on the painful end of a “pretty pointed phone call,” he said.

If the drop-off was particularly severe, college deans might be notified about the student and told that he or she is a potential academic casualty.

But usually “just the fact that the college calls them scares the you-know-what out of them,” he said. And though withdrawn offers are rarities, “it really only takes one example every handful of years for that to be the boogeyman.”

Engaging students

Schools are looking for other ways to coax effort out of seniors. St. Mark’s is undertaking a study of the senior year by sending questionnaires to alumni and their parents.

At L.D. Bell, teachers have created a mandatory senior project to keep seniors engaged. Students choose a subject they find interesting – “anything from how to cut hair to how to install a car stereo,” said Gary Russell, Bell’s coordinator of counseling – write a paper on it and spend 15 hours outside of school learning about the topic with a mentor.

Then they must give a 10-minute presentation to a panel of faculty judges.

“The kids all dread doing it, but they end up having a great time,” Mr. Russell said.

Like many other area schools, Bell also builds in an incentive for seniors to show up for class. Students who miss fewer than a handful of days in each grading period may opt out of final exams.

Mr. Russell said seniors’ attendance rate has gone up in the two years exemptions have been offered.

At Denton High School, seniors may spend half of their day taking college classes at the University of North Texas or Texas Woman’s University if their academic standing is strong enough. This semester, about 55 seniors are enrolled in the program, lead counselor Dorothy Watts said.

“It gives them something else to look forward to, a little more motivation,” she said.

Despite all the incentives, even the most conscientious students find motivation a bit lacking come senior year.

“I do my homework, but I have more free time,” Ms. Cook said. “My goal is to pass with pretty good grades and just enjoy it. You’re only a senior once. … Me and my friends are all going in different directions, and we’re really close. I want to spend time with them. That’s the attitude I’m taking: ‘Well, I did my best. Now it’s out of my hands.'”

Q&A: Bob Chase, President, National Education Association

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Shortly after Bob Chase was elected president of the National Education Association in 1996, he outlined his ideas for what he called “a new unionism.” His plan, which stressed collaboration and improving the quality of America’s schools through reform, was aimed in part at combating the decades-old stereotypes many still hold about teachers’ unions: stubborn, obstructionist and concerned only about the narrow interests of their members.

Since taking office, Mr. Chase, a former middle school social studies teacher, has argued for better pay and working conditions for the NEA’s 2.6 million members while trying to find a place for the union in the school reform movement. The affiliates of the largest teachers’ union in the country are now experimenting with ideas that were considered unthinkable only a few years ago, such as linking teacher pay to student performance.

Mr. Chase was in Dallas recently for a speech and spoke with Dallas Morning News staff writer Joshua Benton. Following are excerpts:

Q: All across the country, schools are facing a teacher shortage. Texas schools started this year with 30,000 teaching vacancies. What can schools do to bring more teachers into the profession?

A: I think the focus should be on the qualified people who, for whatever reason, have left teaching. If you look at the data, there are more than enough people who have been certified to teach to fill every classroom in the country. The problem is retaining people in the profession.

There are a few basic reasons why retention is a problem. One, people entering the profession get little or no help as first-year teachers. There’s no mentoring for many of them. Someone who’s a new teacher is expected to come in on day one and do the same thing someone who’s been a teacher for 15 or 20 years does, and is expected to do it as well, with little or no assistance. That is not a good way to build a profession.

The second thing is a question of salary. There’s no doubt about the fact that teacher’s salaries are too low and are not keeping people in the profession or attracting people. The opportunities that lie elsewhere for them are numerous. Folks have to support themselves and their families.

The third thing is making sure that the teachers are allowed to exercise professional judgment. They have to be empowered to be part of the decision-making processes in schools, so it’s not a situation where someone goes to school to be a teacher and their job is just being told what to do all the time, rather than being part of the decision-making process.

Q: Recently, the Texas State Board of Education voted down a plan to create a new type of teacher’s permit that would have made it easier for people without a teaching background or knowledge of a specific subject area to become a public school teacher. The idea was to solve the teacher shortage by encouraging people in other careers to switch to teaching without having to go through years of training. Will it take bringing in these “nontraditional” teachers
to fill all the vacancies?

A: No, I think you can do it by bringing back the teachers who have left teaching. As for the plan you just referenced, thank God they turned it down. Here we are looking for quality, for better results in our schools, and they’re saying, “Bring anyone in”? Let people teach in subject areas they haven’t been educated in?

To be a good teacher, there are two very basic components: one, you have to know your subject area, and secondly, you have to know how to teach it. It’s the “what” and the “how.” To say you don’t have to learn how to teach, and you don’t have to know the subject matter is to me rather ludicrous. It makes no sense. And data shows us that people who come in through that sort of path are the very people who leave teaching in a short period of time.

Q: What percentage of teachers stick it out over time?

A: If you look at the data, in urban areas, 50 percent of those who begin teaching this year will leave the profession within five years. In rural and suburban areas, it’s between 20 and 30 percent.

Q: Dallas has a new superintendent, Mike Moses. Looking at urban districts that have turned things around, what advice would you give him?

A: Be collaborative. Involve stakeholders in education, and that means the unions, parents, the business community. Reach out to those people who have a stake in quality education and work together.

I think it’s important to be strong. I think it’s important to have a real good handle on what’s going on in the district, so you can try to replicate that which is working well. But don’t try to do it by yourself. Do it in collaboration with those who are involved in education in the community.

Q: Teachers in Cincinnati and elsewhere have approved contracts that tie their pay to their performance in the classroom, judged by their students’ test scores and other factors. That’s a change from the traditional model based more on seniority. Do you see more districts adopting a model based on performance? Could it be one way to keep young teachers involved in the profession?

A: There are more and more districts looking at this, flirting with it. There are lots of different programs out there. In Columbus, Ohio, there’s a program of “gains sharing,” where the staff in a school establishes three goals each year, at least two of them academic. They establish ways to measure how they’re doing. And if they achieve their goals, then everyone in the school receives additional salary at the end of the school year. So there are all kinds of examples that are out there. I think they’re worth looking at.

I just think we have to be cautious. There can’t be just one determining factor in deciding someone’s pay. It’s a very complex issue, and it needs to be approached in a reasoned, sensible way.

Q: One of the focuses of the “new unionism” you’ve talked about is putting an emphasis on quality education and getting beyond the negative stereotypes that have existed about unions and teachers’ unions in particular. Do you think that tying a teacher’s salaries to his or her performance would help get beyond those stereotypes?

A: I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s important to keep in mind that whatever system a district looks at, it must go in total collaboration with the unions. It won’t work if it’s something imposed on people. And it must be incredibly well thought-out. If not, the morale problems it could create would drive a lot of people away. It must be done very cautiously.

Q: You’ve spoken out in favor of school reform. But you oppose the punitive character of a high-stakes testing system, in which students have to pass a test to get a diploma. Is there any way a state could design a high-stakes testing system that would make sense to you?

A: I don’t know. I don’t know of any other situation where just one single element is used to determine someone’s future. I mean, if you look at almost any profession, there are multiple components to measuring success. And I think that we need to keep that in mind when we talk about education. Testing can be a snapshot of one student on one day, not of a student’s entire career or of an entire school.

There are an enormous number of variables involved. For example, there are some schools in this country where the turnover rate among students exceeds 60 percent. If you’re measuring how well that school is doing, what are you measuring? If 60 percent of the students are different at the end of the school year than at the beginning of the school year?

I happen to think that testing and assessments are very important. They’re a crucial component in determining the success of a program or a school. But they cannot be the only component.

How many students are taking difficult courses? What’s the dropout rate? What’s the attendance rate? How many teachers do you have who are not certified or who are teaching out of their field? What kind of resources are available? How much of the money spent by the district is actually getting down to the classroom?

Testing is extraordinarily important, but it cannot be seen as the only instrument to measure school quality.

Q: So you don’t like a situation such as we have here, where a student’s graduation hinges on passing the TAAS exam?

A: It can be a determining factor, but it can’t be the only one. And if you speak with most people in the testing business, even they’ll tell you you can’t use a single test as the determinant.

Q: The state of education in Texas was an issue in the presidential campaign. Now that the election is over, how would you compare Texas to other states?

A: I think some of the criticisms levied in the campaign are legitimate. If you talk about the high dropout rate, the numbers for minority students are terrible. That’s just fact. That’s not political rhetoric. The numbers are there. You have in Texas one of the highest incidents of uncertified teachers teaching – that’s a fact. You have improvement on the TAAS test, but you haven’t seen improvement on other standardized tests – that’s a fact. And people need to take a good look to see what that means.

I speak to a lot of teachers in Texas. They’re teachers who right now are depressed, who are disillusioned because of all the emphasis on the TAAS test. It’s just growing. People feel they are being forced to teach to a test instead of teaching to educate. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed. If the system is so driven by one test, you need to really give serious consideration to whether or not that’s the way things should be.

Painful visit: Meeting with Cole commander offers small solace to mother of Texan who died

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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ENNIS – Monday was the day Tim Gauna was supposed to come home.

The Navy had scheduled a little shore time for the 21-year-old, time for him to play sandlot baseball, see his family and impress his friends with tales of adventure. He was going to be back for his mother’s birthday.

Instead, Sarah Gauna got a less-welcome visit Sunday. Two men from her son’s ship, the USS Cole, came to this small Ellis County town and tried to do the impossible: comfort her, console her and answer her unanswerable questions.

Seaman Gauna was one of the 17 sailors killed Oct. 12 when suicide bombers attacked the Cole in Yemen.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams that my son would be a hero,” Ms. Gauna said, crying and tightly clutching a photo of her son. “My son is a hero.”

Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, the Cole’s captain, and Master Chief James Parlier are visiting the families of the 17 victims to offer condolences and provide whatever answers they can about the attack. Ms. Gauna was armed with dozens of questions, many about mistakes she believed the commander made that helped make the bombing possible.

When the men arrived at the home of Seaman Gauna’s uncle, James, Ms. Gauna kept them waiting for a few minutes before agreeing to see them. She hugged Master Chief Parlier, who had known her son on board the ship, then moved to the commander.

Cmdr. Lippold reached out to hug her, but she hesitated. After he wrapped his arms around her, she began to cry out: “Why Tim?”

“I’m sorry,” he half-whispered.

Her reply, muffled in his Navy dress blues: “Are you?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

Then the Gauna family met in private with Cmdr. Lippold and Master Chief Parlier for about two hours. Ms. Gauna had brought a 4-inch-thick binder of documents about the explosion, with dozens of passages highlighted to remind her of questions to ask. But her tears prevented her from asking many.

In any event, she said, she didn’t expect honest answers. “I told him, ‘You’ll never give me the truth.’ I don’t trust anybody. I don’t trust the government, the Navy people,” she said after the meeting.

Cmdr. Lippold, who left the meeting without comment, has been criticized by the victims’ families and a Navy investigation for failing to carry out security measures before the Cole docked in Yemen, a country linked to terrorist activity. But when the investigation was closed last month by Defense Department officials, Cmdr. Lippold was not disciplined, in part because investigators found he had not been properly informed about the potential threat.

Ms. Gauna is not as generous. “I told him I don’t think he should be a commander of a ship anymore,” she said. “I told him that to his face.”

She first heard from the commander in a phone call shortly after the attack; she was so enraged she hung up on him. He offered to visit her at home, and she found him to be more sorrowful than she had expected.

“We were talking about how he played baseball and the funeral, and he started crying. He asked for a tissue. He said, ‘That’s what makes me cry, when I hear how other people cared about him.'”

Ms. Gauna is still fighting for her son, almost four months after his death. She battles with the Navy to reclaim his personal effects, including a baseball glove and a cross. She battles with the maintenance crew at the local cemetery where her son is buried, when they’re too quick to remove the fresh roses she leaves him every day. She battles with emotions she says only 16 other mothers can understand.

“We try to shut one door, and another one opens,” said James Gauna, Seaman Gauna’s uncle. “And each one gets harder to close.”

Every day, Ms. Gauna visits her son’s grave and reads Bible passages to him. “He tells me, ‘You’re doing good, Mom, you’re doing good,'” she said. “I know now I’m going to heaven to be with him.”

After Sunday’s meeting, the mother and the commander were an inch or two closer to an understanding, if not a truce.

“When he came in, he hugged me, but I couldn’t hug him,” she said. “But when he was leaving, I did hug him. Because he is hurting. Not in the same way we are, but he is hurting.”