Education Funding

Increasing Fuel Costs Hit Hard

By Katie Ash — July 15, 2008 7 min read
Mary Ballou, a bus driver for the Montgomery County public schools in Maryland, fills her vehicle with fuel at a depot in Rockville, Md., before starting her route on July 2.
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With fuel prices soaring nationwide, reaching more than $4 for each gallon of gas or diesel, school districts are struggling to supplement transportation-budget shortfalls and find ways to offset the increasing costs as a new school year approaches.

“This is completely unprecedented,” said Michael J. Martin, the executive director of the Albany, N.Y.-based National Association for Pupil Transportation, or NAPT. “I don’t think it was on anyone’s radar screen.”

Now districts—most of whose buses run on diesel fuel—are scrambling to squeeze every drop of efficiency out of fuel tanks by consolidating bus stops, revisiting routes with optimized software and GPS technology, and implementing strict “no idling” policies.

Some districts, such as the 138,000-student Montgomery County school district in Maryland, are even looking at increasing the distance that students may have to walk in order to cut down on the number of buses on the road.

Although school officials in Montgomery County said they have no immediate plans to change the transportation policy in the district, the board of education recently granted Superintendent Jerry D. Weast authorization to modify transportation policy in an emergency situation.

“The issue was brought up at the board meeting that because of the rising fuel costs, and the enormous impact that has on a school system of our size, that it was important for there to be the flexibility to make some changes [to the transportation policy] in an expedited manner, if it’s necessary,” said Kate Harrison, a spokeswoman for the district.

However, any change that the superintendent proposed would be subject to a period of community feedback and board approval, said Ms. Harrison.

About 96,000 students ride the county’s 1,300 buses daily, she said, and for every cent that diesel-fuel prices rise, it costs the district another $30,000 annually.

At least one school district in Minnesota is switching to a four-day school week in order to reduce transportation and energy costs for the 2008-09 school year.

“The decision [to go to a four-day week] is primarily a result of the higher prices of gas,” said Greg A. Schmidt, the superintendent of the 700-student MACCRAY school district, which consolidates the communities of Maynard, Clara City, and Raymond, about two hours west of Minneapolis.

The shift to a Tuesday-through-Friday schedule, with each school day about one hour longer, will save the district an estimated $65,000 annually in fuel costs alone, said Mr. Schmidt.

Although MACCRAY is currently the only district in Minnesota to implement this policy, which required approval from the state, several others have expressed interest in following its lead, said Mr. Schmidt.

More Riders Expected

Despite the rising fuel costs, school transportation officials warn against reducing school bus services.

“This is the first time ever that [school transportation] has been on the chopping block in a large scale,” said Mr. Martin of the NAPT. “But school buses are really the solution to high fuel prices.”

Providing yellow school bus service is both the safest and the most environmentally friendly way to transport students to school, said Mr. Martin. And as fuel costs continue to rise, families, who are also feeling the sting of high gas prices, may start to depend even more heavily on the service, he said.

That increase in ridership is something Derek Graham, the president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, or NASDPTS, and the section chief of transportation services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, anticipates happening in the fall.

“From a safety standpoint, that’s quite good,” he said, but it will cause further strains on the already strapped state budget.

The amount of funding local school districts receive for transportation services from states varies, but in North Carolina, the state provides about 90 percent of the cost to school districts, said Mr. Graham.

“We’ve got a situation where local districts are grappling with this really major problem, and it’s our responsibility to identify any resources that can be helpful for them,” he said.

The North Carolina legislature recently allocated an additional $35 million to help with the increase in diesel-fuel costs, but even with the state supplement, “it still looks like we’re going to be short,” said Mr. Graham. “Then it’s a matter of reallocating money.”

Temporary Measures

Similarly, in South Carolina, on July 2, Gov. Mark Sanford signed into law a measure that will set aside about $19 million for school bus fuel for the 2008-09 school year.

But Donald Tudor, the director of transportation services for the South Carolina Department of Education, already knows that amount won’t cover fuel costs for the whole school year, even if gas prices remain where they are today. “The funding gives us enough money to get through the year until the General Assembly comes back into session in January,” he said.

As in North Carolina, the South Carolina state budget bears the brunt of school bus fuel costs, said Mr. Tudor. The state owns and maintains 5,035 buses and buys about 12.6 million gallons of fuel annually.

“We are constantly looking at efficiency and effectiveness,” said Mr. Tudor, but with as many miles as those buses travel, quick fixes such as consolidating bus stops and prohibiting idling on school grounds can’t make up such a vast spike in fuel costs.

The state is poised to install GPS technology on all its buses to help track bus routes, said Mr. Tudor. “We expect for that to have a very positive effect,” he said.

Even school districts that do not own school buses, but contract with outside vendors to provide that service, are feeling the effects of rising fuel prices.

The 167,000-student Philadelphia school district, which owns about 500 buses and contracts with 10 other vendors to transport 36,000 students to school every day, has exceeded its projected transportation budget by roughly $1 million, said Vincent Thompson, a spokesman for the district.

“All school districts are feeling the effects, and we are as well,” said Mr. Thompson, “but budgets are fluid documents, and they change often, and we will adapt our ... budget to factor in all costs.”

According to state law, the district must provide transportation for all students, including private and charter school students, and despite the rising cost of fuel, that service will be provided, he said. “Fuel costs have exceeded expectations for all school districts, but we are committed to making sure that kids in Philadelphia have transportation come September.”

In Houston, the 200,000-student district has begun to reach out to employees by providing a one-time bonus of $250 to staff members who make less than $30,000 annually to help them with commuting costs. Roughly 10,000 employees are eligible for the bonus.

The district itself, which is the largest employer in the Houston area with 29,000 full-time and part-time employees, experienced a $3 million increase in transportation costs this year, and expects that number to rise during the next academic year. During the past three years, the district underwent a massive overhaul of the bus system, cutting the number of routes from about 1,000 to 800 by reducing the number of stops and consolidating bus routes, which has helped school officials weather the increase. But “any time you have a three million dollar increase, it’s a big increase,” said Terry Abbott, a spokesman for the district.

Magnet School Impact

The Houston district does receive some funding from the state, “but it’s not anywhere near close enough,” said Mr. Abbott. Also, Houston is an open-enrollment district, where students are free to enroll in whichever school they want, depending on spaces available, which means that many students do not attend the schools closest to their homes.

“We have approached the point where the cost of transporting children to magnet schools is actually on par to the cost of running the magnet schools, and that’s a serious problem,” said Mr. Abbott. “We have to think about how to continue the excellence of those programs while reducing our fuel costs.”

Bob Riley, the executive director for the NASDPTS, hopes that this recent examination of school buses will advance efforts to explore hybrid buses and alternative fuels, and also spur policymakers to consider the importance of school bus service to academic achievement.

“More people are transported on school buses than all the other bus systems,” he said, “but what’s different is that there’s no federal funding ... and all 50 states vary in their requirements.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Increasing Fuel Costs Hit Hard

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