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Central Illinois homeowners aren't the only ones hit by this year's high heating bills.

With natural-gas prices reaching all-time highs, schools and universities also have had to brace for the cold. Illinois State University in Normal, for example, spends more than $4 million a year to heat the campus' nearly 90 buildings.

While institutions' gas bills dwarf what a household spends for natural gas, school officials say they'll deal with the winter's woes the same way individuals do.

Those include:

w Watching thermostats.

"We're setting the temperatures back at night and on weekends," said Bruce Boswell, energy manager for Normal-based Unit 5. This year, the district also plans to turn the thermostat way down on holiday breaks, when buildings are unoccupied.

Other schools and campuses in the area plan similar policies.

w Updating old equipment.

As buildings age, heating equipment needs replacing. Using more energy-efficient pieces helps contain costs.

In the last few years, aging systems in several of Bloomington schools have been replaced as a way to offset costs, said David Wood, chief financial officer for Bloomington's District 87.

Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington also phases out its old equipment, said Bud Jorgenson, IWU physical plant director.

w Trying to budget for possible high costs, but keeping fingers crossed for a mild winter.

"It really is impossible to predict the weather," said Tod Altenburg, Unit 5's chief financial officer.

"Right now, we're on target, but you never know," he said.

The district has budgeted an extra 15 percent for heating costs, he said, reserving $1.1 million for that item in its operations and maintenance budget.

"The cycle over the winter is expected to go up. But no one really knows," echoed Wood.

Costs definitely have been rising the last few years, he said.

In 2002, District 87 spent about $300,000 for heating. By 2005, it had jumped to $400,000. And in fiscal 2006, it's close to $700,000, he said.

Despite that, the heating costs still represent only a fraction of the district's $4.4 million supplies budget, he said.

If costs go over the budget, District 87 and other districts will adjust other budget items, just as an average household would, said Wood.

ISU created an energy management office three years ago to better shop the markets, said Ron Kelley, ISU energy management director.

The aim of the plan is to reduce the price risks associated with market fluctuation, he said.

Unit 5 created Boswell's position in August to address energy efficiency, he said.

Last year, ISU spent about 60 cents per therm, said Kelley, referring to the unit of natural gas it takes to heat water 1 degree Fahrenheit. This year it's up to 72 cents, but that's much lower than retail, he said.

"Right now the retail is about $1.20 per therm, ?| but we're paying about 72 cents per therm," said Kelley.

And nearly 90 percent of the gas needed for next year already has been bought, he said.

The ISU energy official says education administrators, like most Americans, have come to understand energy and utility costs will continue to rise.

"But we just have to try to offset that the best we can," he said. With 6 million square feet of building space to heat, ISU works at that constantly, he said.

IWU officials anticipate spending more than $200,000 extra this year to heat the campus, said Jorgenson. In fiscal 2005, it spent more than $700,000 to heat the private campus's 50 buildings.

Besides adding newer equipment, Jorgenson said, the school handles the increases like everyone else, adjusting budgets to accommodate the added cost.

"There isn't really anything you can do," he said, other than ride the market out.

"The cost is going to stay high," but maybe the rate of increase will slow, he said.


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