WASHINGTON – Bundle up, kids. It's getting cold inside.
As oil and natural gas prices soar, public schools are having to make some tough decisions: turning down the thermostat, finding alternative sources of fuel, even cutting back on the school week.
At Menomonie High School in western Wisconsin, principal Tom Wiatr has dropped the temperature a few degrees. Students started wearing zip-up sweatshirts and fleeces to stay warm, raising questions about a school rule against wearing jackets indoors.
So the school clarified its policy, even scheduling a fashion show to highlight acceptable clothing.
Naturally, it was snowed out.
So far, students are lukewarm to the school's strategy. The classroom temperature is 68 degrees.
"When we get into February, when we are below zero and the building takes longer to warm up, maybe then they will be a little more uncomfortable," Wiatr said of his students. "We just remind kids to dress appropriately. It is common sense that you just don't wear a tank top to school in February."
Schools are being socked with high fuel bills, whether it's diesel fuel to run their buses or heating oil or natural gas to keep buildings warm. Fuel prices have risen because of tight international supplies and reduced production in the hurricane-slammed Gulf Coast.
As schools lower the thermostats, they also encourage parents to make sure their children have a sweater handy.
"We have kids who go to school wearing shorts even in the wintertime, and the schools are making sure parents know their kids need extra clothing," said John Ellis, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. "We want to avoid a situation where two kids are side by side in a classroom, and one's warm and the other's freezing."
In Council, Idaho, the school district is switching this winter to a new heating system that uses extra wood from the surrounding Payette National Forest. "We believe that this will be the standard in many of the small towns in the Northwest, because there is so much potential fuel out there that is being wasted," said superintendent Murray Dalgleish.
At the Clayton Public Schools in rural southern New Jersey, reducing the temperature in class is more than a cost-cutting tool. It's also a learning tool, argues Kathy Latshaw, secretary to the school system's superintendent.
"For the little ones, it's teaching them about hot and cold," she said. "And in the upper grades, they're able to learn about the cost of things."
Even the cost of brewing a cup of coffee on campus is going up.
In St. Paul, Minn., the school district has come up with a $25-per-appliance annual fee as one in a series of steps to recoup utility costs. That means teachers have to pay to plug in their coffee makers, microwaves and refrigerators in classrooms and offices.
At the Summerfield High School in Louisiana's Claiborne Parish, the sprinklers for the ball fields have been shut off, as have the few lights that used to be kept on after hours.
In western North Dakota, the Killdeer School District is considering going to a four-day school week, triggered in part by higher fuel costs.
With the coldest months ahead, school business officers are worried most about heating their buildings. Rising fuel costs seem to affect the price of just about everything, they say, from furniture and deliveries to construction material and even garbage bags.
Simply budgeting more money to cover heating costs is more difficult than it sounds, said Anne Miller, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International.
Schools sometimes gamble, lulled by mild winters and lower heating bills. They set aside less for heating and more for salaries or supplies. When a cold winter or an energy crisis comes, they may have to cut expenses from the class. Or just keep those classes colder.
"Cutting something from the instructional side isn't something that anyone wants to anticipate," Miller said. "It's more a case of, we'll deal with that when we get here."