Costly Winter for School Districts

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Looking for another way to measure mid-Michigan's brutal winter? At Shabazz Academy in Lansing, there hasn't been outdoor recess for nearly two months.

"I think you become a little stir crazy and teachers, administrators, and of course the kids are raring for sunny days and warm days," said Chief School Administrator Dr. Eugene Cain. "You have an increase in just restlessness and wanting to go outside."

Part of the administrative longing for spring comes from the financials too. Cain estimates that the school is paying 2-5 percent more this winter for its natural gas heating.

"When you don't have enough money to do all the things that you want to do, it is significant," said Cain. "The big challenge is you've gotta pay the bill."

Heating costs are up at the Eaton Regional Education Service Agency too, according to Superintendent Dr. Christine Beardsley. The boiler has run non-stop this winter. It hasn't failed yet, but she says she's still concerned.

"Can our boiler keep up with the demand at the temperatures we've experienced when we haven't really experienced these temperatures this low for this period of time?" she said.

A failed boiler sacrifices comfort any time, Beardsley said, but the stakes are higher in a winter when the district has already had nine snow days, up from 1-2 in a normal year.

"We're already making up days," she said. "If we're too cold or the boiler can't heat or for some reason needs repair that day, it's no longer 'well we have days to work with.'"

But the biggest cost of all, Beardsley said, is plowing the parking lot at her building. Eaton RESA has already spent $11,000 this winter -- already more than what the district spent for the same service over the entirety of the last year.

The piles in the parking lot have grown so large, Beardsley said she had to hire a private company to remove them.

Snowy parking lots are also a problem for Dean Transportation, which has spent more than average on plowing, maintenance and overtime this year, according to President and CEO Kellie Dean.

Batteries, engines and suspensions have all suffered, Dean said. It takes longer to start the buses, he said, but once they get going, the only delays are due to weather conditions.

Not all districts are struggling though. The superintendent of the Ingham Intermediate School District says the budget isn't tight because most of a district's allocations go to employee salaries.

Superintendent Stan Kogut says since his district uses natural gas as opposed to propane, he hasn't seen his bills skyrocket. And his district does its own maintenance, which defrays some costs.

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