This editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:
The same surge in oil prices that is filling the state treasury is also draining the budgets of Alaska's school districts. It's only fair for state lawmakers to use some of the state surplus to help schools keep the heat and the lights on without breaking the bank.
Energy prices spiked upward just as Alaska schools opened their doors on a new year. At the Yukon Koyukuk School District, for example, this year's budget planned on a 14 percent increase in heating costs. Less than halfway into the heating season, costs are already up by 41 percent. Its heating bill is already $60,000 beyond what the district set aside for the whole year. To make ends meet, the Interior district is selling off vehicles and school equipment.
In Anchorage, steeper energy bills are taking a bite from the school budget as well. The price of natural gas has gone up by almost 40 percent in the past two years. Higher natural gas prices also helped drive up the district's cost of electric service. Next school year, the district says, it needs an additional $1.4 million just to keep even with its energy bills.
Compared with smaller districts, Anchorage can more easily handle a big energy cost spike. But no district is sitting atop piles of unused cash. Spending more on energy means spending less on other things, including classroom instruction. This squeeze isn't the result of waste, incompetence or inefficiency. It's just the price of keeping the schoolhouse doors open, driven by factors beyond any district's control.
Alaska schools need relief from the unprecedented burden of high energy prices. With petrodollars surging into the state treasury, lawmakers have the means to give it to them.