School districts typically pay their own way, but several districts in Montana have hatched a plan to pool their resources to buy natural gas in an effort to keep costs down.
The Belgrade and Manhattan school boards this month approved resolutions allowing the districts to team up with three others — Monforton, East Helena and Montana City — to explore the possibility of securing a group natural gas contract.
The idea started with East Helena Superintendent Ron Whitmoyer after a brief conversation with a colleague. A Montana Senate bill passed by this year’s Legislature allows school districts to engage in such partnerships.
Whitmoyer said his district already teams up with another to make bulk paper buys, and securing natural gas would go along the same lines.
“It seems like a natural opportunity for us to look into some ways to cooperate and use economies of scale while maintaining smaller school districts and local control,” he said.
The state has a similar plan in place for buying natural gas, but in order to secure that rate, users need to have at least 100,000 square feet of building space, Whitmoyer said. Potential users cannot combine the footprints of multiple buildings to secure the state rate.
Three Forks Schools have participated in the state plan through the Montana School Boards Association for the past 10 years, Superintendent John Overstreet said.
“When we first started we were saving about 15 to 20 percent,” he said. “The two-year contract we started in July is down about 30 percent from the last contract. That’s a pretty good savings.”
The plan is to form a co-op and set up a joint bank account to purchase the gas, Whitmoyer said. Each district would receive a separate bill. At the moment, the districts are in the exploratory mode.
Cash-strapped schools are a regular topic during legislative sessions, but school officials can take steps on their own to reduce costs, Belgrade Superintendent Candy Lubansky said.
“Instead of holding out our hand and asking for more money from the Legislature, we need to do something responsible,” she said.
Belgrade schools are also looking into forming a partnership with other districts to buy bulk supplies.