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Energy Costs Overheat School Budgets

As the temperature continues to rise, so does the cost of energy.

The past 12 to 18 months have seen a steady rise in energy bills across the nation, and costs are expected to increase even more this summer. For schools and universities, that translates into needing additional money to cool, light and operate facilities.

The increase in energy bills is wreaking havoc on school budgets — often diverting already limited funds away from the classroom.

Based on data from American School & University's 30th annual Maintenance and Operations Cost Study (April 2001), the nation's public elementary and secondary schools spent about $7.8 billion in the 2000-01 academic year, or about 29 percent of their total maintenance and operations budget, on energy. That's up from about $6.5 billion spent last year.

Colleges and universities spent more than $3.5 billion, or 29 percent of their total maintenance and operations budget, this school year on energy. Last year, energy expenditures at higher-education institutions totaled approximately $2.8 billion.

As if higher costs weren't enough, various areas of the country are expected to experience significant power shortages this summer. California's energy woes — which enter a new phase as the state gets in to the energy-supply business — could be repeated in a number of areas north, south and east of the state. The most vulnerable area outside of California is New York City, which currently is scrambling to put programs in place and install additional equipment in the hopes of forestalling blackouts this summer.

Whether the rolling blackouts and other power woes experienced by many California education institutions earlier this year will be repeated later this year in other areas is anyone's guess. But without significant changes in use and related equipment improvements, the chances are good that problems will arise. This has forced schools and universities to further conserve energy and look for opportunities to improve equipment and systems to use energy more efficiently.

Even with conservation efforts, schools and universities are growing more dependent on energy. For example, today's elementary and secondary schools are returning to their roots of being centers of the community. This often translates into facilities being used year-round — evenings, weekends and in the summer — which results in the need for more energy. Colleges and universities also are seeing their facilities used beyond the traditional school calendar, and energy expenditures growing exponentially.

Other factors contributing to education institutions becoming more dependent on energy include increased implementation and use of power-dependent technology and a building boom that is resulting in thousands of new buildings a year that need to be cooled, heated and lighted (see Construction Report, p. 22).

As energy costs continue to climb this year, schools and universities will need to take conservation and improvement efforts to the next level — not only to keep expenses down, but also to ensure classrooms remain open.

Agron is editor-in-chief of AS&U; he can be reached at [email protected].

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