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Pasco schools' deal with Progress Energy meant cold classes

Ridgewood High English teacher Jackie Engel donned a hat, a scarf and gloves to teach in the media center on Monday.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Ridgewood High English teacher Jackie Engel donned a hat, a scarf and gloves to teach in the media center on Monday.

LAND O'LAKES — Students at several Pasco schools shivered through their morning classes Monday without power, huddled in coats while clerical staff worked by candlelight.

As customers everywhere cranked up the heat, why would Pasco schools stand at the front of the line to lose power? The school district volunteered for that honor in exchange for reduced rates from Progress Energy Florida.

Last year, the district saved nearly $365,000 by agreeing to have interrupted service if demand grew too high. That happens rarely, and usually at times when kids are out anyway.

Like many other Florida school districts, Pasco has had such an arrangement for many years. Monday was the first time in 20 years that such a blackout interrupted classes.

Knowing they might lose power, superintendent Heather Fiorentino sent out a phone message Sunday urging all students and employees to dress warmly for school.

The next day, 11 Pasco schools went without electricity for up to four hours. A few of them regained power before students arrived, but some remained chilly even after the blackout ended.

Tuesday saw no such interruptions, despite a 60 percent chance that Progress Energy might pull the plug in some grids.

Some people have complained on local education blogs that the district was putting students and employees in harm's way, and suggested that classes should be canceled if the district has advance knowledge that schools might have to operate without heat and lights.

"It is irresponsible for you to have no heat in schools when our county is setting record-low temperatures," one parent wrote in an anonymous e-mail to Fiorentino. "Your advice of wearing warmer clothing is insulting to intelligent parents and their children. It is your job to provide schools that meet our students' basic needs."

Nonetheless, School Board members remained convinced of the value of the interruptible service participation, noting that they had received no complaints. Principals and secretaries at several schools reported getting some inquiries, but few to no complaints.

"The only call I got was from a parent who told me they appreciated the phone call they got from the superintendent and principal telling them to dress warm," board chairman Allen Altman said.

Altman acknowledged that children might have been uncomfortable, but said it was a minor inconvenience, especially given the infrequency of interruptions.

Board vice chairwoman Joanne Hurley agreed.

"Having the power interrupted is just a normal part of doing business when you live up North," Hurley said. "I'm glad that our district is doing that. This was a once-in-a-millenium type cold snap that we've had. … What we did in having that as an option with the power company is the right thing to do."

She shared Fiorentino's concern that closing the schools might have put children in a worse position, as their parents went to work and the students could have been left without meals or a safe place to go.

"It was not a health or safety emergency," Hurley said. "It was simply a day when the temperature dropped way below normal."

Fiorentino said she and her top staff would discuss this week how the situation played out in the schools and whether any changes are needed.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco schools' deal with Progress Energy meant cold classes 01/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 8:07pm]
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