States grapple with fuel costs for school buses

Published 5:42 pm Friday, May 30, 2008

The reality of rising fuel prices cost students in a Tennessee school district their bus ride to school this week on the last day of the year.

That’s a minor inconvenience compared with what might happen this fall in Minnesota, where a district west of Minneapolis plans to eliminate classes every Monday to come up with the extra $65,000 it needs to fill its buses’ tanks.

“I know $65,000 may not sound like a lot, but it’s more than one teaching position,” said Greg Schmidt, the superintendent in the 700-student MACCRAY district.

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In North Carolina, Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools teachers have scaled back the number of field trips this spring to save fuel, transportation director Binford Sloan said.

The skyrocketing costs at the pump are forcing educators nationwide to trim programs, curb spending and cut down on fuel consumption. Schools are employing unusual cost-savings measures to salvage busted budgets, while lawmakers grapple with how to pay for popular classroom initiatives threatened by the need to pour more money into the fuel tank.

Nash-Rocky Mount schools burned through about $729,000 in fuel in the last fiscal year, or nearly twice as much as in the previous year, Sloan said.

The fleet gets about 7 miles to the gallon, which means the district burns through 7,500 gallons every 3 1/2 school days, Sloan said. Recent buys have cost him close to $29,000.

“We’ve tried pretty much all that we can to save and improve efficiency,” Sloan said.

North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley wants to give teachers a 7 percent raise, but the lawmakers who write the state’s budget are also on the hunt for tens of millions to cover school fuel bills. Rising diesel prices prompted Oklahoma’s Education Department to ask legislators there to increase the schools operations budget, while Texas lawmakers have said they will re-evaluate their state’s school funding system, which has been criticized as ill-equipped to handle sudden spikes in costs such as fuel.

In Tennessee, students who attend Putnam County Schools east of Nashville went without bus service Wednesday, saving the district the $2,300 it costs to operate its fleet each day, said district director Kathleen Airhart. Only a fraction of the student body usually takes the bus on the final day, and Airhart said she received no complaints from parents.

“I think everyone realizes what’s happening,” Airhart said. “Everyone’s pocketbook is being affected by this gas cost.”

Schmidt said most of the feedback to the plan to cut back to a four-day school week in his district, which covers the towns of Maynard, Clara City and Raymond, has been positive, although he said he realizes it will inconvenience those parents who will have to find child care on Mondays. The change will mean students will attend 23 fewer days of school a year, and the length of the regular school day will be extended by a little more than an hour to compensate.

“I think the parents, most of them are supportive because they understand our situation,” Schmidt said.

Not every cost-saving measure has been so draconian. Drivers in the Fairport Central School District outside of Rochester, N.Y., have been instructed to not make special trips back to schools if students forget their coats or lunches on their morning rides, said superintendent Jon Hunter.

“We’re certainly more cognizant of what it costs to run a 60-passenger bus back to school to accomplish that,” Hunter said. Drivers instead are returning to the bus depot and using a smaller vehicle to ferry the item to the student’s school.

This month, the Mississippi High School Activities Association approved a plan to cut the number of varsity games by 10 percent beginning this fall for all sports except football. The districts will save by driving their basketball, softball and baseball teams to three fewer games a season, said Booneville, Miss., schools superintendent Rickey Neaves.

“When you take into account the number of buses you have to go to a game and the mileage, it mounts up pretty quick,” Neaves said.

When North Carolina lawmakers drafted the state’s current two-year spending plan, they estimated a gallon of diesel would cost $1.69 this school year and $1.83 starting this fall. Those estimates proved to be woefully low, forcing state education officials to scramble for an extra $27 million to get the state’s school bus fleet through the end of this school year.

Legislators have already set aside about $46 million for fuel this coming year, and they’re planning to add $45 million more. Districts have “got to have that money from the state,” said Leanne Winner, a lobbyist with the North Carolina School Boards Association, “or that will essentially cripple their operations for next year.”