Marion puts chill on children

Marion County has a cost-cutting agreement to cut the power at schools during peak energy times.


Third-grader Kristopher McIntosh and his classmates are bundled up during a music class in a portable classroom at Belleview Elementary School on Monday. Progress Energy cut power to 14 Marion County schools under a money-saving deal for the School District that allows the utility to shut off electricity during peak usage.

Alan Youngblood/Staff
Published: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 10:42 p.m.

With temperatures hitting record lows Monday morning, 14 Marion County schools suffered a four-hour power outage that left some parents outraged.

The outage was from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

Progress Energy is allowed to cut service during extreme peak times because of an agreement signed by the Marion County School District that saves the district $300,000 a year.

A second power outage is expected again today at 14 area schools, but this time officials are giving parents some options.

Superintendent of Schools Jim Yancey said parents at the affected schools can send their children to school as normal, take them late when it warms up or let them stay home.

"This is not districtwide," Yancey emphasized Monday night. "This only applies to those (14) schools that were impacted Monday morning."

Progress Energy has the arrangement with three school districts, including Marion County, in its 35-county service area.

This "load reduction" plan, as it's known, has been in place for more than a decade.

Alachua County has no such agreement with Gainesville Regional Utilities.

"As far as I am concerned, this is child abuse," said Eileen Klepper, whose granddaughter attends Dunnellon Elementary, one of the impacted schools.

The School District received a call from the state Department of Education.

"We did reach out to the district to relay our concerns," said Tom Butler, the state Department of Education's press secretary.

On the other hand, Belleview Elementary principal Brenda Conner said the outage, while inconvenient, was "a small price to pay for that kind of savings."

Yancey said the outages started on Sunday, with the 14 schools out for 38 minutes. Given that fact, and the possibility of more outages on Monday, the school system on Sunday sent a blast phone warning to parents at the affected schools, telling them to bundle up their kids on Monday.

"I really didn't think there would be a problem on Monday," Yancey said.

Progress Energy said there was a 30 percent chance of outages and, based on what happened Sunday, Yancey figured any Monday outage would last less than an hour.

Heating systems at the affected schools were fired up at 2 a.m., just in case. School District spokesman Kevin Christian said the district learned that Monday's outage was certain just hours before it kicked in at 6 a.m. As it turned out, power wouldn't be restored for another four hours as temperatures plunged into the teens.

At Belleview Elementary, teachers opened blinds to let in the sunlight so kids could see better. With no choice but to take a technology break, they hit the books and taught traditional lessons. Though some classrooms were chilly, students in others didn't even need jackets.

At early lunch, students and faculty munched on peanut butter pockets, salad shakers and other food that could be served cold. A teacher at one of the schools reported her classroom only reached 58 degrees by the end of the day.

The School District has no control when the outages occur. It only knows that they will happen during peak usage periods.

"It [the Progress plan] is a great idea until we have to use it," School Board member Ron Crawford said.

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