The owner of a gas station in rural Campbell County, Tenn., called David Seals on Halloween Day with an urgent message: Get your school buses here by 4 p.m., or you’ll pay 16 cents more per gallon for diesel fuel.
Seals, a school bus driver whose company contracts with the Campbell County district in the Appalachian Mountains, obliged. Two weeks earlier, he had received an alert from Mansfield, a fuel distributor, of possible diesel fuel shortages in the area. The next day, as if on cue, two of the six stations in his area were out of diesel.
“You had everybody trying to stockpile, which really exacerbates the problem,” Seals said. “That just caused a scare.”
The stations might have been out for reasons completely unrelated to a broader regional shortage. But the looming possibility of a lack of access to affordable fuel is a headache for the vast majority of school districts that rely on diesel to power their buses.
These challenges don’t affect everyone all the time. Many districts stockpile fuel at the start of the school year. An increasing number of districts in the coming years will have electric buses that circumvent these problems.
And fuel shortages are often highly localized. The diesel shortage alert Seals saw covered much of the Southeast. But several district leaders in states like Virginia and North Carolina tell Education Week a fuel shortage isn’t on their radar.
In rural areas like Campbell County’s Jacksboro, though, the effects of fuel shortages, and the price spikes that come with them, can be painful for districts.
In addition to operating buses and hiring drivers for the 5,100-student Campbell County district, Seals and his wife both teach and drive buses themselves.
They interact every day with children who will go hungry if not for the food the school provides.
Many parents in the area work two jobs or live on meager fixed incomes. Some students who volunteer at a nearby food bank to meet community-service obligations also have parents who pick up groceries from there. A local church twice a week drops off food for students to take home.
All of this weighs on Seals as he watches the cost of business continue to rise.
“If you have to be home to watch your kids, if you can’t go out and provide, let me make sure your kids are taken care of,” Seals said.
In past years, Seals’ company has paid off its debts from the previous school year by December and has $10,000 in its checking account, and another $10,000 in reserves. So far this year, even with a $10,000 fuel supplement from the district, his reserves are empty. If a bus breaks down, he doesn’t have money to pay for repairs.
Inflation has driven up the cost of living in the area, which means Seals has had to raise wages for his drivers, who include a school resource officer, a cafeteria worker, and two recent retirees.
Meanwhile, the demand for Seals’ services is only growing. Before the pandemic, he typically transported 60 students a day on his bus. Now that number has grown to 85 or 90.
Seals worries about the possibility that urban centers like Oak Ridge and Knoxville would get priority access to diesel if shortages worsen—and that schools in general will be passed over in favor of trains and ships.
“We’d be an afterthought in Appalachia,” he said.