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High fuel prices cost Iowa schools millions

Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa schools, already strapped for cash, might have to spend up to $40 million more this year than last year for heat and transportation because of high energy costs and cold temperatures this month.

Some districts have restricted travel; others have turned to alternative fuel sources. In some schools, children might have to bundle up as the thermostats are turned down.

Jon Muller, energy analyst for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said winter 2006 will put a crimp on budgets.

"That's going to be about a 30 to 40 percent increase over previous years," he said. "It's bad, but there's not much you can do about it."

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Many schools have yet to see their bills for December, when record cold was recorded and single-digit temperatures were seen regularly.

"The sticker shock is going to come when they get their bills in January," he said. "Action will occur after the situation becomes real."

Although winter break allows schools to turn down the thermostats, many could have used the break earlier this month. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures for the last week of December are expected to be more than 10 degrees warmer on average than the first week of the month.

"We take it as it comes," said Duane Van Hemert, executive director of facility management for the Des Moines district. "We've had some pretty mild winters in the past few years, so it all balances out."

The bad news came early for Keith Sersland, superintendent of the Mason City school district.

"Our bill for November was up significantly," he said. "We bought 25 percent of our natural gas last May. Now that prices are up, I wish we could have bought 100 percent back then."

The schools in the district have been trying to compensate by turning down thermostats at 4 p.m., three hours earlier than normal, and turn them back up at 7 a.m., one hour later than normal.

Sersland said the district also cut down on diesel use, dropping four school bus routes and limiting trips to out-of-town events.

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"Basically we're doubling up," he said. "If we sent three buses to an event before, now we send two, or maybe even one."

Muller said 10 percent to 15 percent of Iowa schools use geothermal heat, which can be significantly less expensive, and about 70 percent buy bulk natural gas.

Van Hemert said Des Moines school officials haven't adjusted thermostats as aggressively as Mason City schools.

"Every degree we turn down we save about 3 percent on our energy bills," he said.

"But you can only go so cool in the buildings," he said. "There are little kids who need to stay warm."

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