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

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 25A

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.