January 21, 2020

Oil costs squeeze schools> Districts forced to cancel activities

HOULTON — Rising fuel oil and diesel prices in Maine are prompting school officials to keep a close eye on their budgets.

For some, what they’re seeing isn’t good.

At the school board meeting Monday night in SAD 29, Superintendent David Wiggin reported that for the month of January, the district had spent $20,000 to fill the tanks of two schools.

“Our fuel oil budget has been shot for the year at this point,” he told board members. “It will only take us to the end of February.

The news was no better for diesel fuel and gasoline, and Wiggin said that more than likely, the district will face a shortfall in those accounts when the school year ends June 30.

In an effort to keep that from happening, he has ordered a moratorium on all field trips both in and outside the district, there will be no more conferences and workshops that require out-of-district travel, and only essential supplies will be purchased.

The State Planning Office reported Monday that the price for home-heating oil jumped 12 cents from a week ago to a statewide average of $1.78.

Customers in eastern areas of the state are paying as much as $2 for their oil, while those in southwestern sections can get it for $1.61.

Diesel oil prices ranged from $1.99 a gallon in parts of Aroostook County to more than $2 a gallon elsewhere in the state.

According to the State Planning Office, fuel markets continue to be dominated by a temporary supply shortfall in the Northeast, which has pushed New York Harbor prices, on which prices for the region are based, to an all-time high of $1.36 a gallon.

A meeting of oil refiners, marketers, distributors and Northeastern state officials will be hosted by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson on Feb. 16, to address the regional problem.

If no solution is found, other school systems might have to take similar measures to those implemented in SAD 29.

“It’s certainly going to have an impact,” said Superintendent William Braun of SAD 48 in Newport, who said it’s costing his district as much as $1,000 a day for diesel fuel to carry students to athletic competitions.

“We’re going to try to hold off and do the best we can,” he said, adding that if there is no price relief, “we’re going to have to cut back on field trips.”

“The next thing is we’ll start looking at the temperatures in our buildings and telling people to wear sweaters again,” he added.

Paul Lattrell, business manager for SAD 34 in Belfast, said heating oil prices were not a problem there, since the district bought 120,000 gallons last summer at a locked-in price of 55 cents a gallon.

“Where it’s getting us is our diesel, because it’s based on the dock price for that day,” he said, adding that the district recently paid 30 cents more a gallon for diesel fuel than a week ago.

He said there is a good chance that budget account will go over this year or “be very close.”

In Union 104, which includes Charlotte, Perry, Pembroke and Eastport in Washington County, Superintendent Joseph McBrine was cautious, but not worried.

With the exception of Eastport, the other towns had locked-in prices that were less than half what is being charged by dealers.

There is no locked-in price, however, for the two schools in Eastport, which he said probably will use 16,000 gallons of heating oil this year. Because of that, the town is paying a higher price for its fuel.

Nonetheless, McBrine wasn’t overly concerned, because all of the union towns have a healthy budget surplus, which will allow them to cover the cost of fuels, without affecting programs.

If things do get tight, however, “it means additional local tax or we’ll have to cut something else in the way of instruction or maintenance,” he said.

In a related matter, the board of directors of Leaders Encouraging Aroostook Development, a regional group that promotes economic opportunities in The County, on Tuesday voted to send a letter to Gov. Angus King, the state’s congressional delegation and the secretary of energy in support of efforts to release some of the country’s strategic petroleum reserves, in order to bring down fuel prices.

Kathy Stubbs, human resources manager for the Louisiana-Pacific Corp. oriented strandboard mill in New Limerick, said the high diesel prices are keeping truck drivers from coming north with empty trucks to pick up loads, because it’s too costly.

“It’s starting to put a real crimp in our movement of products to market,” she told the LEAD board.

Mike Corey, executive director of the Maine Potato Board, echoed a similar concern for potato shippers.

“The rate to ship potatoes south has increased, but it’s still not enough to meet the costs of the truckers,” he told the board.

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