Kansas school group settles Symmetry natural gas price suit. Deal requires public praise if sought.

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Several Kansas schools are settling with a natural gas company after their energy bills spiked during the February freeze.

Several Kansas schools have settled in a lawsuit against a natural gas company over high energy costs during the February freeze.

Education officials praised the company, Symmetry Energy Solutions, in a statement on the settlement. But schools are now switching to a new company, WoodRiver Energy.

The Kansas Association of School Boards announced the new natural gas supplier in recent days for its Energy Management Program. The program was previously known as the Kansas Joint Utilities Management Program, or KJUMP.

"The natural gas market has experienced significant volatility with major events like Winter Storm Uri, which drove prices to unprecedented levels," KASB officials said in a news release. "As the U.S. continues to see volatility in the natural gas market, participating members will be protected from weather-related market spikes and the impact of the energy crisis in Europe and Asia."

The KASB natural gas purchasing consortium has more than 175 members. The program promises its members "no liability for over or underestimated consumption and no risk for supply and demand." Schools are allowed "to focus on educational issues without the need to be a part-time energy trader."

More:Did price gouging occur during winter storms? Federal regulators say the answer is coming soon.

Many schools signed onto a class action lawsuit against Symmetry Energy Solutions after the February price spike.

Last week, KASB and Symmetry announced "a mutually satisfactory resolution of issues surrounding high market prices for natural gas supplied to Kansas schools." The joint news release said Symmetry was "a willing partner" as they worked "in concert" with KASB to find solutions, noting the "long-standing relationships" between schools and the company.

On Thursday, KASB announced the new deal with WoodRiver. They said schools under the partnership will have "protected their budget from market volatility for the next five years."

Settlement required public praise for Symmetry

KASB had already terminated its contract with Symmetry and signed with WoodRiver prior to both announcements. The public praise for Symmetry was required under the settlement agreement.

A copy of Fort Scott Community College's settlement agreement with Symmetry, obtained through an open records request, showed the last provision was on public statements.

"At Symmetry's option," the agreement said, KJUMP will make a public statement "acknowledging Symmetry's good faith efforts and significant accommodation of the Schools' interests ... and any other matters reasonably requested by Symmetry."

The settlement agreement discounted gas prices on the February bill from what the school energy consortium claimed were "exorbitant, excessive, and or unconscionable rates."

Symmetry billed the purchasing pool a combined $8.4 million for natural gas sales and related charges for February. The schools paid $3.5 million and disputed the remaining $4.9 million.

More:Some local governments in Kansas are operating with 10% of positions unfilled

The settlement payment from the schools was about $2 million and the company issued nearly $700 million in settlement credits to schools that had already paid more than their fair share.

"We were fortunate to work with a company who understood the unique circumstances and undeniable social value of public schools," said Austin Harris, the KASB director of member engagement, in a joint news release with Symmetry. "Symmetry quickly and willingly opened several lines of communication that allowed us to work through this situation together. In the end, we were able to reach a resolution that insulated our members from severe financial impacts associated with the spike in natural gas prices."

News release issued right after open records request

The news release came two days after The Topeka Capital-Journal filed the Kansas Open Records Act request for the settlement agreement.

"We are delighted to have been able to assist Kansas schools," an unidentified spokesperson for Symmetry said in the statement. "They, like us, suffered from the impact of Winter Storm Uri on natural gas prices. Given the importance of their mission, we went to great lengths to reach a resolution that worked for the schools."

WoodRiver took over as the purchasing pool's marketer at the start of October.

"We are very excited to work with WoodRiver Energy as we continue to deal with increasingly frequent extreme weather events that will continue to create volatility in the natural gas market," Harris said in a joint statement with the company. "WoodRiver is a great supporter of public education, and we are already seeing the financial benefits of this relationship. Greater savings for schools across the state has always been the goal of this program and we are excited to continue building on that tradition."

More:Kansas utilities and municipalities have plans to recoup record energy bills. Here's what they're proposing.

"We are excited to partner with KASB to meet the unique challenges that face Kansas schools and provide its members affordable budget protection," said Don Krattenmaker, vice president of business development for WoodRiver. "The timing of this partnership has already protected schools from an over 50 percent price increase due to Hurricane Ida and the growing demand of exported natural gas for Europe and Asia."