Enron case tied to school costs

EVERETT – Snohomish County schools have seen their electricity bills jump as much as 80 percent, despite comprehensive energy-saving programs, educators said Thursday.

As a result, local schools are spending money to keep the lights on rather than supporting “our mission, which is teaching children, not paying the PUD bill,” Everett Schools superintendent Carol Whitehead told U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee.

The Washington Democrats said they’ll use the information as they try to force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to intervene in the Snohomish County PUD’s battle with Enron.

“School districts have not hired teachers because they’ve had to put bigger checks in the mail to Enron,” said Cantwell.

“It wasn’t just Grandma Millie who had money stolen, it was our children,” Inslee added.

Cantwell estimated that Snohomish County school districts have paid an additional $9 million for higher-priced energy as the result of Enron’s alleged manipulation of West Coast power markets from 2000-01, even though all three districts worked with the PUD to find ways to use less energy.

The districts would have to pay an additional $2.5 million if Enron prevails in a lawsuit that seeks to recover $122 million from the PUD, which cancelled its contract with the energy company in 2001.

Enron’s suit against the PUD is “a little like Bonnie and Clyde suing the banks,” Inslee said.

The Snohomish School District is paying an additional $420,000 a year in power costs, Superintendent Bill Mesters said, enough to pay for “all of the textbooks we’d need to renovate social studies for a year.”

To balance the budget, the district has not hired teachers to match the growth in the number of students, and has left vacant positions unfilled, he said. That’s driven up the average class size.

“The quality of education is significantly impacted because of that,” Mesters said.

In Mukilteo, the district has reduced spending for text books and library books and has cut bus drivers, office staff and after-school activities for children, said Carolyn Webb, the district’s executive director for business services.

The district did receive more state money last year, but two-thirds of it went to pay the higher power bill, she said. “Those were dollars intended to buy text books (and) computers and software.”

In Everett, the district was able to slash energy use 12 percent, but the power bill still went up $450,000, Whitehead said. That’s enough to pay for four or five new teachers, she said.

Compounding the problem, the district’s energy bills are going up at the same time that state and federal officials are placing costly new requirements on schools, said Paul Roberts, the vice chairman of the Everett School Board.

“These things really are a death of a thousand cuts,” he said.

Inslee scoffed at President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education program, saying that he has adopted a “leave-no-energy-trading-gouger behind policy … so that this administration can protect their pals at Enron.”

“This evidence is irrefutable,” Cantwell said. “The federal regulators, instead of doing their job … have instead jammed Washington state, our economy and now, we know, even our children with these costs.”

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