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With winter approaching, 16 local school districts expect savings of between 10 and 20 percent on their heating bills as a result of their participation in a newly formed energy cooperative.

"We're expecting quite a few more districts to join in the next couple of weeks," said Martin Ruglis, interim director of the School and Municipal Energy Cooperative. "And we're getting daily inquiries from municipalities."

The cooperative plans to drive down prices by purchasing natural gas in greater volume. At the same time, it allows members to purchase gas directly from producers, and to buy when prices are low and store fuel they don't need immediately.

"Cross-border, cross-sector models of collaboration are absolutely essential to the strength and future of this region," said John B. Sheffer II, director of UB's Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth. "This is a very encouraging model of that kind of cooperation."

The nonprofit corporation was formed by the Erie I and Erie II Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, which represent 46 school districts in Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties.

Springville-Griffith Institute expects to save $17,000 to $25,000 on its yearly heating gas bill, or between 12 and 20 percent. In Cleveland Hill, a savings of $3,000 to $6,000 is expected, said Assistant School Superintendent Alan K. Getter.

Savings will be larger in bigger districts. For example, Orchard Park schools saved $126,258 over the last three years by joining a natural gas purchasing consortium of about 15 school districts.

Participating in the larger cooperative will further reduce the heating bill, said Superintendent Charles Stoddart.

"Our goal for quite some time has been: Can we expand this?" he said. "Now we're graduating into a bigger league."

Participating districts include: Cheektowaga, Cheektowaga-Sloan, Cleveland Hill, Eden, Iroquois, Orchard Park, the Springville-Griffith Institute, Bemus Point, Brocton, Cassadaga Valley, Frewsburg, Jamestown, Panama, Sherman and both Erie I and Erie II BOCES.

About 30 school districts have shown interest, and many towns and villages -- which just became eligible -- also are expected to join, said James Fregelette, a BOCES I official and secretary of the cooperative.

The new group will be the largest one serving municipalities in Western New York.

Originally, the effort was scheduled to begin next month. Instead, it was launched on Sept. 1 because of favorable natural gas prices. "We think we reached the market at its low point," Ruglis said.

On a smaller scale, the Town of Amherst and Village of Williamsville have a joint purchasing arrangement for natural gas with the Williamsville, Amherst and Sweet Home school districts. That plan saves Sweet Home $2,000 a year on gas and $5,000 in consultant fees, said Gary R. Cooper, district superintendent.

Joint purchasing, which has already been used to lower the cost of health insurance and worker's compensation, will expand as utility deregulation proceeds, local school officials said.

"After gas, we're going to go after the electricity," Stoddart said.

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