Schools cautious of running on emptyby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
As the Minnesota school year gets started today, education administrators will be keeping a close eye on the expense of educating students. Energy costs are a special concern. Although they're generally less than five percent of a school district's budget, rising energy prices have forced districts to adjust.
Worthington, Minn. — The most dramatic reaction to the rising cost of diesel fuel, gasoline, natural gas and other energy sources is what happened in the MACCRAY school district. The district serves three small towns: Maynard, Clara City and Raymond.
Last spring the school board in the southwest Minnesota district voted to adopt a four-day school week, the first time that's happened in Minnesota. It's estimated the move will save the district nearly $70,000 in energy costs, mainly in school bus operation and building heat.
School board member Carol Thomton says she's anxious to see how it all works out.
"I think I'm a little bit more apprehensive than I was last spring when we had to consider and decide what to do," says Thomton.
Thomton says she still believes the district is doing the right thing, but says implementing the plan is a lot tougher than voting for it.
"It's real now, it's actually going to happen," says Thomton.
Thomton says the four-day week means lengthening the school day by 45 minutes. She believes most parents support the move, although there are still concerns.
Some worry about whether student's concentration will suffer during the longer day. As Mondays become a day off from classes, parents may have to adjust work schedules or find day care for their children.
Thomton says the four-day week is the latest effort to reduce spending in a district which has seen significant budget cuts each of the last three years.
"The budget situation for rural schools is just a dismal picture," says Thomton. "And we needed, we felt, to think outside of the box and look at some ways to save some money on fuel in particular."
Many Minnesota districts are being squeezed financially by declining enrollments during a time when the costs of operating schools are increasing.
In the town of Luverne, near the South Dakota and Iowa borders, students and their families will bear some of the cost of increasing energy prices.
Luverne Superintendent Gary Fisher says energy costs account for only two percent of the the school's budget. But he says when prices rise sharply like they have in the last year, it forces him to spend more money than planned.
He says one action the school board took in response to rising energy expenses is to increase the student activity fee by 27 percent.
"Our fees have gone up from $55 for sports, each individual sport, to $70 for grades nine through twelve," says Fisher.
In the transportation area, the district has altered some of its bus routes as a way to reduce spending. Fisher says the school has combined some routes, making them longer, so that the district needs fewer buses on the road.
While this means a longer ride for some students, it should help lower overall transportation costs. He says the school district is also looking at ways to reduce athletic team travel. He says one idea is to hold more events on weekends for younger athletes.
"Instead of the middle school kids traveling twice a week, we'll do jamborees on the weekend and kids could get two or three games in on the weekend and make one trip," says Fisher.
Fisher says the district has also seen the impact of energy costs in the cafeteria.
School lunch prices have increased this year, a little over 10 percent. He attributes that mainly to the impact rising energy prices have had on the cost of raising, processing and shipping food.
He says the district has done what it can for now, but like many school administrators he's worried about this winter. He's bracing himself for another round of price increases when the first heating bill arrives.