Chron: School districts saved money with later start date; HISD: No we didn't

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Last week the Chron’s Jennifer Radcliffe wrote a story with the following thesis: School district utility bills have gone down since the Lege ordered later start dates:

Texas public school leaders may still be fuming about the legislative mandate that delayed the start of the school year until the last week of August, but advocates point to lower utility bills as a sign that lawmakers made the right choice.

In the first year, schools statewide appear to have saved millions of dollars in August utility bills. The Houston Independent School District’s monthly payment to Reliant Energy, for example, dropped almost $200,000 between August 2006 and August 2007. Officials attribute about $66,000 of the savings to lower electricity costs.

You might already be able to see the problem with Radcliffe’s story: She focused on August utility bills alone. Guess what? A later start date means a later end date, which means the possibility of extra utility usage at the end of the year. Might the savings have been offset by that? The Chron doesn’t know:

HISD spends about $57 million a year on electricity, meaning $66,000 is a slight savings, officials said. And they said some of the savings probably were erased by extra days in May and June, but they couldn’t provide the figures.

We heard from HISD’s Terry Abbott who disputed Radcliffe’s conclusion. Abbott said HISD advised Radcliffe the assertion might be wrong, and that HISD was running the numbers to see if the savings held up with the addition of the extra days at the end of the year. As it turned out, HISD’s month-by-month electricity usage analysis did not show a savings; in fact, HISD’s electricity usage and costs were higher for the 2007-08 school year when compared to the 2006-07 school year.

Abbott requested a correction or retraction from the Chron, but so far the editorial leadership has declined.

While Radcliffe’s story features HISD, a sidebar notes August utility savings for fourteen school districts. In asserting that Texas schools “have saved millions of dollars,” did Radcliffe get the last-month-of-school numbers for any of those school districts? If she did, they’re not listed; therefore, Radcliffe’s conclusion (millions saved) is not supported by her partial facts (August numbers only). To come up with that conclusion she needed to get complete utility numbers for all the districts.

Did any other districts try to warn her against using incomplete data? Unclear, but it doesn’t appear the Chron is going to revisit the issue, and this will be the end of the story for Houston’s daily newspaper of record.

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Anne Linehan is a co-founder of blogHOUSTON.