Local schools saving money, energy in difficult economic times

At its last meeting, the Kent school board members discussed the optimum time for a community dinner held at the school by an outside party. Just thinking of firing up a largely vacant school’s energy-sucking furnace over winter break gave them the chills, so April, full of school activities and dotted with mild weather, was selected.

Simple actions such as switching off lights and reducing water consumption have paid dividends for the local schools. The district’s energy conservation program, adopted approximately four years ago, has already saved more than $923,000, according to Deborah A. Krutz, Kent school board treasurer.

The purpose of the program is to eliminate energy waste by conserving water, electricity and natural gas throughout the school district’s many buildings, said Tom Condit, the energy manager for the school district.

“This is a comprehensive program that involves the entire district and oversees the operation of the district from an energy standpoint,” said Condit, a former Kent elementary and middle school principal. “It involves getting people to change habits and getting people to realize it is not just about shutting off lights.”

The district’s efforts to save money through energy conservation began with Energy Education, a company based out of Wichita Falls, Texas, that creates energy conservation programs for school districts, community colleges, universities and large churches.

The Kent schools will need every last cent, based on the recently released budget that predicts plummeting tangible personal property tax revenue.

“We want to stretch our tax dollars as far as possible,” Krutz said.

That frugality will prove vital in the current 2009 fiscal year; energy costs are up across the board. Krutz forecasted increases of 33 percent for natural gas, 25 percent for gasoline and diesel fuel and 11 percent for electricity.

As part of an energy consortium, Krutz said the district still obtains the lowest price available by buying in bulk.

Kent isn’t the only district eyeballing erratic oil prices, which jumped more than $16 a barrel on Monday, the single-day record.

Streetsboro’s school energy budget will see at least a 30 percent increase this fiscal year, said Todd Puster, its school board treasurer.

The school buses still need diesel, and the children still need buses to take them across the city’s 25 square miles.

Streetsboro has also watched inflation keep a brisk pace while its budget jogs with tired legs a few paces back. Caught in the doldrums of its regular financial cycle, the school has an estimated $1.3 million less to work with in actual money than last year, based on government inflation data.

Interest rates on the school system’s investments have dropped from 5 to 2 percent, stifling a revenue generator that may have helped offset the bigger gas bill.

Streetsboro’s residents, which account for 75 percent of the school’s income, passed a levy last autumn, which should provide some relief.

“The financial stability of our district is dependent on school levies,” Puster said.

Kent transitions between the STAR Ohio money market fund set up by the state treasurer’s office and collateralized local certificates, whichever has more favorable rates.

Both the Streetsboro and Kent school systems’ budgets have projected expenditures topping revenue for the 2008-2009 year, to the boards’ treasurers said.

Roger Sidoti, principal of Theodore Roosevelt High, has prepared for the lean times ahead.

“We’ve already been reduced over the last three or four years,” he said. “We’ve done it voluntarily to protect the programs that we know the community really supports.”

One way has been stretching a building budget “better suited” for 800 or 900 students to accommodate 1450 of them.

Another way he and other school administrators “hold the lines” is by hiring part-time teachers to fill schedule gaps in August when the number of students is known, rather than a full-timer in the spring.

Roosevelt’s cost-saving measures had little quantifiable impact on the school, which scored an “excellent” on the state report card for the fifth consecutive year.

“We’ve always put the student first, and we’ve always tried to protect the integrity of the academic program,” the principal said. “That’s our strength.”

Contact public affairs reporters John Hitch at [email protected] and Sarah McGrath at [email protected].