Thursday, September 15, 2005

Towns, schools watching fuel prices

Published in the Current

(Sep 15, 2005): Scarborough students and school staff might need to “wear more sweaters” this winter, as the district has frozen all discretionary spending to save money that could be needed to pay higher-than-expected heating oil and diesel prices.

“There are very few accounts that we actually control,” said Superintendent Bill Michaud. He has stopped all spending on textbooks, office supplies and audio-visual materials, while allowing for some exceptions to be made on a case-by-case basis.

He said the district had considered canceling all field trips, because of the cost of diesel fuel for the buses transporting students and teachers to various locations.

“There are some field trips that are closely tied to the curriculum” and many that are outside of school but still in town, such as science trips to Scarborough Marsh and the town’s beaches.

He said the district will be reviewing all field trip requests, and “obviously some of them are going to be eliminated.”

Sports teams will be allowed to use buses only for required meets and contests, he said. There will be no more buses to scrimmages or exhibition games.

“We’ve also considered turning the thermostat down” to save energy, said Michaud. All the school buildings in town except for the primary schools are heated by natural gas, which does not allow the schools to lock in a price. And the district has not been able to lock in a price for what heating oil it does use, estimated to cost $500,000 a year.

Michaud will review the district’s fuel spending in early January to see whether it can afford to end the spending freezes.

Town Manager Ron Owens said if fuel prices stay about the same as they are now, the town and school combined could be more than $100,000 over the budgeted amount for diesel fuel, most of which is used for school buses.

If diesel prices, which are now falling, go back up, the budget hole would be bigger, as much as $700,000, if prices climb $1.20 a gallon above where they were two weeks ago, when the town got its last shipment of diesel.

“We can do some things to try to absorb that,” Owens said, such as reducing engine idling and finding ways to eliminate duplicate vehicle trips.

But if the hole is larger than about $100,000, Owens said he would seek approval from the council to cover the extra costs with money in the town’s reserve account.

Cape Elizabeth Superintendent Alan Hawkins told the School Board Tuesday he is starting to collect information about projected fuel costs, and might appoint a group to discuss what should be done.

Cape Town Manager Mike McGovern has asked all town departments to find additional ways to conserve fuel, in addition to their regular conservation measures, such as using timers on lights and boilers and using energy-efficient windows and light fixtures.

In South Portland, school Business Manager Polly Ward said the city and schools together locked in a heating oil price last spring, so that is not a concern.

She said district employees are concerned about diesel fuel costs and the cost of natural gas, but are not yet restricting field trips.

“Right now we don’t have any reason to believe that we’re not going to be properly budgeted” for fuel expenses, she said.

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