If you think your electricity bill is high, imagine a utility bill that costs nearly $5 million each year. That is the case for the Fairfield Public School system, which, by simple virtue of your tax dollars, is your utility bill, too.

So, in what is certainly the most severe economic downtown in a generation, would you leave your lights on all night? Let's take it a step further -- would you leave your lights on all night in 16 school buildings throughout town?

Well, whether you would or not, the lights are on, and the bills are rising.

Hopefully, I have caught your attention. Now, bear with me as I explain in more detail.

In February of 2007, when I was a reporter for this newspaper (then called the Fairfield Citizen~News), I began the exhaustive task of documenting what lights were on at the schools late at night -- between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Armed with a map and a pen and a pad, I drove around to the 16 public schools a few nights per week over the course of several weeks, taking notes on what turned out to be a systemic waste of money.

Overall, my results pointed to this conclusion: entryways, stairwells, parking lots and some classrooms were well lit; many computers were left on -- all of it seemed a bit excessive. It left me wondering, who's monitoring this; what is the rationale for leaving the lights on overnight? Sure, some of the lights may be kept on for security and safety reasons, but others, such as well-lit glass entryways at Roger Ludlowe Middle School, Burr Elementary and Fairfield Warde High School, appeared to only enhance aesthetic value.

"Do you think we own the UI?" my mother routinely said to me growing up, whenever I would leave a light on in a room. "Do you think money grows on trees?" was another common rhetorical question.

I know now that my mother instilled in me valuable life lessons with these words. And, based on my research, these are words that must have never been said to the Fairfield Public School system. It is a costly lesson not yet learned, but still not too late to fix.

Want some more specifics? Consider these facts:

"¢ Utility expenses were the fifth highest expense in the 2006-07 proposed budget -- $4,929,512 of the total $127,507,671. (Really, the only relatively controllable cost given the top four are, in order: teaching staff, health insurance, student transportation and certified staff support.)

"¢ Utility expenses increased by $1,043,936 (.88 percent) between the 2005-06 and 2006-07 proposed budget.

The following is a school-by-school breakdown of electricity expenses (line item 4240), proposed 2006-07.

Burr -- $128,483

Dwight -- $48,561

Holland Hill -- $53,328

Jennings -- $57,238

McKinley -- $143,781

Mill Hill -- $61,216

North Stratfield -- $54,643

Osborn Hill -- $70,584

Riverfield -- $57,261

Sherman -- $60,885

Stratfield -- $65,066

Fairfield Woods Middle School -- $172,795

Roger Ludlowe Middle School -- $411,845

Tomlinson Middle School -- $181,244

Fairfield Ludlowe High School -- $442,177

Fairfield Warde High School -- $496,840

(PAL and Central Office also add to the district's electricity bill.)

One last point: remember that the numbers here are nearly three years old. We all know that utility rates have increased since then. It is also important to note that a drive-by at a few of the schools in the past few months revealed that the results of my research still hold true.

Now, I don't claim to be an expert here -- I don't know much about electricity rates, wattage hours and the like, but I do know that we are all trying to save money these days. I also know that everyone agrees that we must retain the excellence in our school system; yet we must also reign in spending. In that regard, concerns abound about layoffs, cuts to programs and services, and tax increases. So, it is incumbent upon the school system to investigate the electricity line item as an opportunity to save money this year. The potential savings from turning off the lights could spare a teacher or arts program from the axe. It could mean the difference between a tax increase and no tax increase.

Besides saving money, turning the lights off would reduce energy usage -- in other words, conserve resources. It may also lessen the potentially intrusive impact the lighting has on residences that abut several school properties.

I know Fairfield has plenty of task forces, commissions and committees, yet I truly believe this subject deserves a thorough investigation by the Board of Education, particularly as the members begin preliminary discussions for the 2010-11 budget tonight. In what is sure to be one of the most challenging budget years in recent history, there could be no better way to potentially save a substantial amount of money -- one that would in no way adversely affect the education of our children.

Gary Jeanfaivre welcomes feedback at gjeanfaivre@bcnnew.com