St. Paul, Minn. Teachers in budget-stressed schools are accustomed to shelling out for paper, glue and pencils. But the staff here wasn't ready for this: a new fee for having coffee makers, microwaves and refrigerators in classrooms and offices.
While school districts around the country are placing limits on personal appliances in an attempt to hold down energy costs, St. Paul's pay-for-plug approach appears to be unique.
In announcing the policy this month, interim Supt. Lou Kanavati described the $25 per appliance annual fee as one in a series of steps to save money. He said the district's energy costs this year could exceed $6 million - far more than the $3.6 million officials budgeted for.
For now, the district is asking for voluntary payment before deciding how to enforce the fee. People who pay it will get a sticker to affix to their appliance.
Teachers, counselors and other St. Paul school employees say they're outraged. Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the local teachers union, said complaints are rolling in.
"I've been universally hearing from members who are frustrated at the least and insulted at the most," Ricker said. "They say, 'We bring papers home to grade and we don't charge the district for electricity at home."'
Elementary teacher Linda LeBoutillier has a microwave, refrigerator and electric pencil sharpener. She often spends her lunch hour working, so the appliances are a convenience issue. She's not sure what she'll do.
"I may pay the fee or may re-evaluate my use of a microwave and just start bringing in cold lunches," she said.
District officials say the appliances are taking a toll. In a memo to the staff, Kanavati relayed annual estimated costs of running them, ranging from $22 for a microwave to $75 for a coffee pot.
Judy Marks, associate director of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, keeps track of school energy trends. She said she hasn't come across a similar strategy.
But, she added, "Every school district is racking their brains for every possible way to save energy."
In northern New York, the Malone Central School District is hoping to save money by dialing down thermostats and keeping some light fixtures off. Staff members also have agreed to consolidate personal appliances.
The school board in Kenosha, Wis., went much further, adopting a policy banning microwaves, coffee pots and food-making appliances in classrooms.