Bristol-area schools grapple with rising heating costs

BRISTOL — Despite Mount Abraham Union High School’s decision two years ago to install a wood chip heating system — a move that cut the school’s fuel oil usage by almost 90 percent — the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union (ANeSU) is scrambling to cope with the rising cost of heating oil.
“I’ve got to believe that my schools will be 25 to 40 percent short” in their budgets for fuel oil, said ANeSU Business Manager Greg Burdick said.
“We’ll spend what we need to keep the schools heated,” he said, but the district may have to “rob Peter to pay Paul. The schools will stay warm, but it’s liable to come at the expense of, and I’m oversimplifying here, pens and pencils.”
The district’s executive committee will decide late this week whether or not to accept the single bid they received last week for the fuel oil contract. Jay Jipner, the proprietor of Bristol-based All Star Fuels, put in a bid to sell the district its oil at an eight-cent mark up per gallon over the rack price.
If awarded the bid, Jipner will provide between 60,000 and 67,000 gallons to heat MAUHS and the district’s five elementary schools. 
This will be the second year that ANeSU has not locked into a “pre-buy” fixed price — meaning that predicting the total cost for heating the district’s six schools is all but impossible.
“Nobody knows where this is going,” Burdick said — but ANeSU officials and school board members across the district do know that the effects will be widespread.
“It’s a death knell for the schools,” said Burdick. “It doesn’t just impact fuel oil. Anything that comes by truck or rail, we’ve paid shipping fees.”
For school officials concerned about the rising cost of heating, the success of the MAUHS wood chip boiler offers a small degree of consolation. The new boiler, installed in 2006 after lobbying from two students, has been marked a tremendous success.
Last winter, the school used only around 8,000 gallons of oil to heat the physical plant — down from around 47,000 gallons per year prior to the installation of the wood chip boiler. The school spent almost $13,000 on fuel oil during the last heating season — just $700 more than what Lincoln Elementary, the smallest school in the district, spent on fuel.
Additionally, the high school spent just shy of $30,000 on wood chips last winter, bringing the total heating bill for MAUHS — a 159,500 square foot building — to almost $43,000.
That bill is over $4,000 less than what Bristol Elementary, at a little over 70,000 square feet, paid to heat their building last winter.
Unfortunately, Burdick said, at this point transitioning to alternative energy sources such as wood chip boilers would prove substantially more costly for the district’s five elementary schools. MAUHS made the switch when the state offered to pony up 90 percent of the cost of installation.  According to Burdick, 14 or 15 Vermont schools put in new heating systems using that state-funded assistance.
“The state actually overextended itself,” Burdick said, and no longer offers that degree of financial assistance.
Plus, he said, “economies of scale” would make heating system overhauls at the district’s elementary schools less cost effective. At this point, Burdick said, he does not envision any of the schools making the sort of transition that MAUHS made two years ago. 
So the ANeSU is left to stomach the rising fuel prices as best it can.
If budgeted funds for heating oil do, as Burdick has predicted, fall substantially short of actual prices, school boards will face the unpalatable option of overspending.
“If it comes right down to it, the boards can overextend a budget if they absolutely have to,” he said. “Most of the time they don’t like to do that.”
Concerned about budget woes, the MAUHS school board is already eager to start the budget discussion for the 2009-2010 school year.
At their Aug. 12, board members acknowledged the difficult economic climate, and the pressures it will place on the board and community. Board member Robin Herbick asked that members consider trimming the budget upfront, rather than reducing or removing items later, and board member Bob Hall asked members to consider which programs can be cut in their entirety at the onset of the budget process.
BRISTOL — At their Aug. 12 meeting, Mount Abraham Union High School board members:
• Heard a request from seven local boys who play hockey together — including five MAUHS students — who wish to join the Middlebury Union High School team for the coming season. The anticipated cost per player is $1,000 for one season. The board anticipated making a decision at their September meeting.
• Appointed Jane Low as the board’s representative to the Community Council.
• Discussed a timeline for the principal search. Principal Paulette Bogan said she would be retiring at the end of the upcoming school year. The position will be posted on Nov. 5, and a search committee will be formed by Nov. 19. The search committee will execute the preliminary hunt, and a principal will be hired by the school board on the recommendation of the superintendent. Superintendent Evelyn Howard advised the board that the ideal time to hire a candidate is in November or December.
• Approved lunch and milk prices at $1.50 for breakfast, $3 for lunch for students, $5 for adult lunch and $.40 for milk.

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