School gas bill: $187K

Chad Frey
The Kansan

During a polar vortex in February rumblings of tight supplies of natural gas led to speculation of big bills for natural gas consumers. In Harvey County the price per unit for natural gas increased as much as 200 times — and the big bills began to come due in March. 

Sub zero temperatures during a two-week winter storm in February led to massive natural gas bills for Newton USD 373, which is joining more than 100 school districts to litigate the bills.

Newton USD 373 got that big bill in March, and officials thought they had weathered the storm after seeing the price tag. 

"The price of that bill was about $35,000 and our normal gas bill is about $20,000," said David Decker, director of finance. "At that time  I was high-fiving [Superintendent] Fred {Van Ranken] saying 'I think we got through it. It wasn't great but we went through it pretty well. No worries, it looks like we are good to go.'"

But then a new round of bills came in April. And those bills proved to be too much for the district to bear. 

A bill for $160,000 — what is called a "pass through" for the price of gas — arrived in district offices April 6. April 13 a bill for Walton Rural Life Center of nearly $30,000 arrived. 

"Our grand total  is about $187,000," Decker said. "... That is significant. It is some thing that we did not budget for. It is something that in my wildest dreams I never anticipated that much variance within a gas bill. ... The numbers are not important, it is just the magnitude of this."

That number is about five times more than expected.

"I hope that this is something that does not repeat," Decker said. 

The district has settled on a plan to deal with the bills, or at lest postpone them. They, along with several other school districts in the same position, are preparing a lawsuit against the natural gas provider. 

KJUMP, the Kansas Joint Utility Management Program, is hiring legal counsel to investigate — something that should take about six weeks. 

"At that point we will pay our normal rate, which was about $3.70 per unit and will bring our bill back down to about $35,000," Decker said. "But, the rest of that, the balance, if  it is going to be that $187,000, will take months to litigate."

There are about 137 school districts joining KJUMP for litigation. Districts will pay a $500 up-front fee for litigation services. 

That means the district and board of education will be revisiting regularly over the next few months. 

The legal team will be looking at how much gas the district received, the price of it and allegations of price gouging for natural gas. 

This is a fairly familiar story — the state legislature created a loan program for cities caught in the price spikes. Cities have about four years to pay those loans back. Halstead is making use of that program and billing residents at least an additional $20 per month for the next four years.