A parking lot is empty at Manhattan High's East Campus in mid-February. USD-383 canceled in-person and virtual school because of extreme cold and power outages. Now the district is contesting a big gas bill from February.

Officials with the Manhattan-Ogden school district say they will contest the February gas bill, which totaled $128,363, an increase of more than $100,000 from the January bill.

During the school board meeting Wednesday, USD 383 superintendent Marvin Wade said he was expecting February’s utility bill to be higher, as record cold weather led to increased energy usage. However, he said seeing a total gas bill of $128,363 was surprising.

“I saw that and thought, ‘Something seems a little out of whack here,’” Lew Faust, district director of business services, said.

The district’s bill for February gas usage from Symmetry Energy represents a 475% increase over the bill for January, which was just over $22,000. Faust said it would have made sense to him for the February bill to be in the $40,000-$50,000 range, but not for it to represent 91.5% of the district’s entire budget for that line item.

Assistant superintendent Eric Reid said the district is part of a cooperative bulk purchase group for utility services with the Kansas Association of School Boards. Instead of the district buying its own gas service, the purchase group buys it for multiple districts in Kansas at a time.

A statement shows the volume of gas units used by the district increased 51% to 6,338 for February. For January, the district used 4,209 units, with a final bill of just over $22,000.

Reid said Evergy handles the district’s electricity needs, and because of a signed agreement incorporating wind-power into the district’s energy management plan, USD 383 pays a set rate on electricity each month. Reid said he does not know that number offhand, but said the set rate “probably came in handy right now.”

Faust told board members that officials with the Kansas Association of School Boards are advising the district to not pay the bill. KASB has retained a law firm with a specialty in public utility settlements that will represent USD 383, along with other school districts and entities with similarly hefty bills following several weeks of brutal winter cold. He did not give the name of the law firm. Faust said the firm will advise the district of its next steps during a virtual meeting on Friday, and he said there will be no interruption of service during the 60- to 90-day negotiation process.

Also on Wednesday, Chris Boxburger, Manhattan Area Technical College director of adult education, reported increases in enrollment and graduates for the GED program through the Adult Learning Center.

Boxburger said enrollment has jumped 25% in the two years since MATC took over the GED program from the school district. For the 2020 school year, 196 students are enrolled, and the two-year enrollment total for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 is 336. For fiscal years 2017 and 2018 — the final two years USD 383 — total enrollment was 269.

Boxburger said in the last three years, 72 students have graduated with their high school diploma from the ALC, as compared to 34 students in a comparable timespan from 2016 to 2018.

Boxburger also told board members about the expansion of the Regional Testing Center. Developed in 1972 by USD 383, the goal of the center was to provide GED testing in Manhattan for students in the Adult Education Program who would otherwise have to travel to Topeka for testing.

The district updated the testing center in 2014 when GED exams moved from paper and pencil to being administered by computer, growing out of a cramped space into a 10-foot-by-30-foot room complete with 15 testing stations. The center was later made available for public use, and Boxburger said it now offers 66 sponsors of different exams by various testing companies.

In other business, the board approved the following:

• Amended change orders at Manhattan High School West Campus for additions totaling $48,903 from McCown Gordon Construction, and an increase in the guaranteed maximum price for the project to $27,468,964. Changes that contributed to the increased cost included alterations to the layout of the weight training room for $21,933; fire protection and heavy-gauge ducting in the gym for $15,629; and modifications to North Drive for $20,093.

Reid said the guaranteed maximum price “changes when it needs to,” depending on district construction needs.

• Amended guaranteed maximum price for a change order accounting for the removal of an intercom system and addition of new fire alarm equipment for Frank Bergman Elementary with BHS Construction for $24,862.

• Audio-visual equipment and necessary electrical work for College Hill Early Learning Center from Cytek and Economy Electric for $38,197.

• Additional copies of the Connect 4 Learning picture books for the early learning classrooms from Kaplan for $24,999.

• A new collection of books for Eugene Field Early Learning Center, as well as Spanish titles for both early learning facilities, from library book aggregator Follett for $39,507. Eugene Field has not had a library since it became a preschool facility, but with renovations to the building under the district bond project, there will now be a new library to fill with books.

• A professional learning seminar contract for $20,000 for motivational speaker and original “freedom writer” Manny Scott. Scott spoke to district staff in February, and administrators requested a follow-up visit in the fall semester.

• A purchase of early literacy lessons from Heggerty Learning Resources for $22,127.

• A $12,600 cash grant from Riley County Raising Riley to College Hill Early Learning Center for reduced fees for families.