Manassas Journal Messenger 2/09/01



struggle with gas prices


Diane Freda



Area school systems are scrambling to find ways to pay for a sharp spike

in heating bills caused by an unusually cold winter and increases in gas


While cold weather appears to have temporarily gone, the effects of

one of the coldest winters since 1996 are still being felt.

Some schools are turning to contingency funds, while others may be digging

into underground oil reserves as an alternative. Prince William County is

faring better than most because it’s gas bills are not the biggest component

of its utilities.

“Fortunately our gas bills are probably less than 10 percent of

our total utility bills,” said Prince William County Director of Plant

Operations Chris Bohne, “so the increases are being absorbed by contingencies

built into our electric bill.”

While most of Prince William’s schools and administrative buildings

are heated by gas, electricity is used to fan the hot air, and for lights,

comprising 80 percent of its utility costs, he said.

To heat its 70 schools and administration buildings, the system paid

$349,000 from Nov. 11 to Dec. 11, roughly a 50 percent increase over what

it paid last year, Bohne said. November and December were the coldest months

of the year so far.

Area school systems are facing the same gas price hikes that individual

energy consumers are – spurred by gas shortages and the early onset of


Most school systems will try to deal with it through contingency, or

rainy day funds, but others, such as Arlington County will consider more

drastic measures. Schools there may turn to oil until gas prices come down.

“We’re worried,” said Anthony Martin, Director of Energy Management

for Fairfax County’s 191 public schools. “It’s going to be at least

a million and a half plus shortfall on utilities this year.”

Fairfax has a million gallons of oil buried in underground storage tanks

which can be used. About 60 locations have already switched over. It may

also take advantage of deals from gas suppliers who agree to lower prices

for schools that agree to switch to oil if suppliers run out.

“We did that in 1996,” Martin said; the problem was, so did

everyone else. “You had to get on your hands and knees to get them

to deliver oil to your place,” Martin said.

The price of gas went up about 50 percent in November, Martin said.

Added to that was a 30 percent increase in degree days in which temperatures

fell below the 65 degree baseline where neither heating nor cooling was


Gas alone cost Fairfax County Schools $1.3 million in December.

Officials in Manassas Park City Schools are keeping fuel prices in mind

as they work on the 2002 budget.

“We’re just now analyzing the numbers,” Associate Superintendent

Ben Kiser said.

Kiser said he thinks fuel prices will have an impact on the bottom line.

“We built in a projected increase, but I’m not sure we built in an

adequate amount,” he said. The division will see some savings with

the January closings of Independence and Manassas Park elementary schools.

Usage was up by 46 percent in December for Arlington public schools

and cost was also up making it about a 91 percent increase, said Phillip

Norris, energy analyst for the system.

If January’s unusually warm weather cooperates, they will be able to

dilute the costs over the rest of the year he said, and pay with contingency


“Deregulation of electricity has spurred a lot of electric companies

to build new plants and they are all driven by gas so this tightened up

the market in the summer and has carried over into the winter. We also have

the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries holding on to their oil,”

he said.

State Sen. Charles Colgan, D-Manassas, said the problem must be addressed

at the federal level and there is little the state legislature can do. Although

some funds have been appropriated for low income families, the schools are

on their own.

“It’s a very frustrating situation,” he said. “A lot

of people are calling me. All we can do is hope for warm weather.”



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