Hydro hike another hit to school board

Burnaby school board chair Baljinder Narang -
Burnaby school board chair Baljinder Narang
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With funding from the education ministry essentially frozen, every penny counts with each passing year.

In addition to inflationary increases, this year Burnaby school district also has to find a way to fund pay increases that the province negotiated with CUPE support workers.

Now BC Hydro has announced it's raising its rates significantly, which will work out to a 28 per cent increase for the district over the next several years.

Currently, the district spends about $1.2 million each year on its electricity bill, said district secretary-treasurer Greg Frank. With the first rate increase kicking in on April 1, that will cost another $32,000 for the rest of the current school year.

In 2014-2015, the rate hike will add $144,000 to its Hydro bill and in 2015-2016, that will grow to $225,000, followed by smaller rate increases in years after that.

"It's significant," said Frank.

Being more energy efficient is an option, but not likely to bring more cost savings, said school board chair Baljinder Narang.

That's because for the past three years Burnaby school district has been named by BC Hydro as one of its Top 10 Power Smart Partners, a designation given to organizations that are leaders in energy efficiency.

Indeed, according to a 2012 article on the BC Hydro website, all the lighting in the district was to be upgraded by the spring of 2013, which alone was expected to save $335,000 a year on its electricity bills.

"Which tells me we're pretty high [in efficiency], how much higher can we go in savings?" said Narang.

Combined with the CUPE wage increases, she said, "Our budget by default, our liability, has increased significantly without even doing anything."

That's on top of the carbon offsets all school districts have been required by the province to pay since 2010. The offsets are used to fund projects elsewhere that compensate for an organization's greenhouse gas emissions.

For Burnaby, that amounts to $165,000 this year and $185,000 last year.

"It depends how cold the winters are," explained Frank. The colder it gets, the more energy the district uses to heat its schools and the more carbon offsets it has to pay.

The district's efforts to become more energy efficient has helped, but more to stop the dollar figure from getting larger, he said.

"Every time we open a new building, expand our footprint, consume more paper for more students etc., it all gets into the calculations. So what we've really done is been successful in slowing the growth in the carbon offsets we have to pay."

The province has started a program to award grants for capital projects to improve energy efficiency with a commitment to ultimately return to school districts what they've paid out in offsets, Frank noted.

However, from year to year there isn't a direct refund of the total amounts to districts. Because it's not guaranteed, the district can't count on it in its budgeting process. As well, while it's being paid out as an operating expense, any funding that returns as a grant would go towards the district's capital budget.

"It's not a cost that we can really avoid paying in any way," said Frank. "No matter how efficient we make our buildings, we are going to continue to produce carbon and that offset cost will be there."

Originally there was also a software tool to calculate the offsets that districts were required to pay, but that's no longer the case, saving the Burnaby district around $20,000 a year.

And while the province recently announced it is shutting down the Pacific Carbon Trust, which ran the government's offset program, it will simply be run in-house instead of as a separate organization, to save money, said  Frank. "But we're not aware of any changes in the actual program that would have an impact back on school districts directly."

In the end, Narang is realistic about the increased costs and the need to find savings to pay for them.

"We have to balance the budget," she said. "At the end of the day, that's what we have to do."

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