SALEM TOWNSHIP – Some school superintendents think about their budgets in terms of taxes, others in terms of how much it costs to educate one student.

SAD 58’s Quenten Clark thinks in terms of teachers, and by his estimate paying for this year’s jump in fuel costs is like throwing three teachers into the furnace.

“Just a few years ago we were paying 80 cents a gallon – less than $100,000 in total – for heating fuel. This year it’s looking like it’ll be half a million (dollars),” Clark said.

“In our district, it’s about a mill on the tax rate, about 3 teachers we can’t have – three teachers going into the fuel tank, on an economic basis.”

With gasoline prices just below $3 a gallon and winter around the corner, lots of regular folks are worrying about how they’ll make it through the year. Diesel and heating fuels tend to mirror gasoline when prices climb or fall.

“It’s going to be a tough winter for everybody, I think,” Clark said. “Next winter it’ll be worse.”

And that’s what school administrators are worried about.

SADs 58, 9, and 36 have all budgeted for sky-high diesel and heating oil prices, superintendents of all three districts said this week.

“Barring some extreme circumstance, I don’t see us going over budget,” Clark said.

SAD 9 actually paid $0.20 under what was budgeted per gallon for diesel fuel earlier this summer, Director of Support Services Dave Leavitt said Monday.

SAD 36 budgeted is accounts based on expecting high fuel costs, Superintendent Terry Despres said Tuesday.

The problem isn’t this year or these prices, exactly, he said. The problem is in the trend. “The rate of increase in fuel prices is outpacing what taxpayers can afford to spend,” he said. “It’s dangerous.”

Diesel prices, for example, have gone up 44 cents from what they were one year ago – a nearly 20 percent increase, according to a U.S. Department of Energy Web site. Each increase in operating costs either takes services away from students, burdens taxpayers, or both, Despres said.

In one year, he said, his budget for energy costs has gone up 50 percent.

Already, rising prices are changing the way districts do business. SAD 36 now buses all ages together to cut down on the number of trips each bus makes. SAD 9 refuses to pay for field trip transportation, requiring classes to fundraise for field trips instead. But prices are still going up.

“It concerns me, because I always try to think two years ahead for my budgets,” Despres said. “If this same percentage of growth continues, I don’t think taxpayers can sustain this.”

“Somewhere, this is going to cause a crisis,” he said. And in the meantime, it’s leeching services away from the students, he added.

Up in far-flung SAD 58, Clark started to actively look for radical solutions a few years ago. Monday, a wood-chip burning furnace was delivered to his bus garage, and this winter the garage will be heated by wood chips instead of oil. He is exploring the idea of heating all his buildings with wood chips or other non-petroleum-based fuels in the future.

He is on the forefront of energy innovation in Maine, and will be a panelist in discussion on biofuels in Bangor this fall.

But he’s doing it out of desperation, not desire, and the fact he – a regular guy from the backwoods of Maine – is labeled an innovator infuriates him.

“I’m totally disgusted,” he said Monday. “I’m not the one who should be tying to figure out what to do.”

“I get calls from public radio, other reporters, other superintendents. I want to say ‘call the governor and ask him what he’s going to do.'”

There are options, Clark said Monday, and he thinks the government should be spending the billions it’s using to fund the war in the Middle East on researching alternative energy sources at home.

But honing those ideas takes years, he said. Years the SADs in Franklin County may not have to wait.

“In the U.S., it would take 20 years (to get a new program up and running),” he said. “You have to be willing to look forward.”

Brazil is a country expected to become energy independent this year, according to a report by USA Today. “That strikes me as a country that had an intelligent energy policy,” he said. “There is no energy policy in the U.S., and especially in the state of Maine.”

In Vermont, which subsidizes schools using alternative energy sources, 35 schools burn wood chips, Clark said. Maine needs a policy like that, he said.

Gas and heating fuel prices are expected to continue to go up and school districts will continue diverting money that could be going into the classroom, into fuel tanks, all three superintendents said.

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