WASHINGTON — The wheels on the bus aren’t the only things going round and round.
The dials on the fuel pump are spinning, too, for school districts that face soaring costs just as 25 million children get back on the bus for a new school year.
Most buses use diesel fuel, which has jumped about a dollar a gallon since last year. School districts now pay an average of $2.25 to $2.40 a gallon, a figure that keeps climbing because of summertime demand for fuel and the escalating price of crude oil.
To offset the costs, districts are stripping money from classrooms, trimming bus routes, cutting field trips and raiding cash reserves. Some are considering charging fees for bus service or asking kids to walk longer distances to school.
Ultimately, however, the buses must keep running. School transportation is mandatory in most states, and buses account for more than 8 billion trips to and from school each year.
One bit of good news: Buses are the safest form of school travel, and when gas prices get this high, more teenage students ride the bus to save money, often at the behest of their parents.
"I think our new back-to-school slogan is, 'Fuel prices got you down? Take the school bus, and save your gas for the weekend,'" said Robin Leeds, an industry specialist for the National School Transportation Association, which represents private school-bus contractors. Many of those private contractors are absorbing some of the added costs themselves, she said.
Overall, the price of unleaded gasoline stands at roughly $2.55 a gallon nationally, up 68 cents from last year, the Energy Department says. Diesel fuel is at $2.57 a gallon, up 74 cents from a year ago. Those prices recently went up 16 to 18 cents per gallon in a week.
Compared to what the typical motorist pays to fill up, schools get a discount because they buy in such huge quantities and don’t have to pay government fuel taxes.
But then again, the average driver isn’t filling up a tank of 60 or 90 gallons, driving a vehicle that gets seven miles to the gallon and hauling 65 passengers all over town.
In South Carolina, the Education Department buys more than 12 million gallons of diesel fuel each year for its 5,000 buses. Each time the fuel rate goes up a penny, it costs the state about $120,000. At the current rate — the department pays $1.94 a gallon — the agency will bust its budget by $1.4 million and have to ask the governor and lawmakers for help.
“We’re wishful thinkers. We hope the price will come back down,” said Donald Tudor, the department’s transportation director.
Prices are expected to ease but only somewhat when overall demand slows after Labor Day.
Transportation costs aren’t the only energy problem for school districts. Chuck Linderman, the business affairs director for the Great Valley School District in Malvern, Pa., has seen rising oil prices affect everything from paper to school construction.
One school renovation project will cost his district around $14 million, not $12 million as expected, in part because of steel production expenses related to fuel. The district is also paying 20 percent more for classroom paper because of higher manufacturing and transportation costs.
“I just don’t think people understand that fuel affects everything,” he said.
In an informal survey of school business managers by the Association of School Business Officials International, 62 percent said rising fuel prices were hurting their districts.
The business officers have all kinds of strategies to keep budgets in line — ordering more central pickups of students, expanding conservation, experimenting with other fuels.
“I think everybody, first and foremost, is trying to find ways to buy cheaper gas,” said Michael Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. His group, which follows school transportation trends, has seen the price of diesel fuel jump from less than a dollar per gallon two years ago.
Some districts are having to cut spending elsewhere.
“We know what gets cuts first,” said Anne Miller, executive director of the business officials association. “It’s going to be the maintenance of the buildings. It’s going to be professional development for teachers, and after that, it’s going to go right on down the line to school staffing.”
The timing, at least, could be worse.
States pay for the largest share of education. And the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that state budgets are healthier than they’ve been in five years.
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