Gas Prices Tighten the Squeeze on School Budgets

It’s the latest evidence that rising fuel costs are straining school transportation budgets: fewer field trips – with some paid for by students, no idling of the engine in front of buildings, and definitely no sweetheart stops.

“That is an added stop you make for a student’s convenience because their house is on the way home,” says Max Bochman, a bus operator with the Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in Illinois. “In this suburban environment, you might want to save a student a three-block walk.”

Unfortunately, more students must walk extra steps this semester in an effort by school officials to keep gas-guzzling buses from sucking up so much high-priced diesel fuel.

With noticeable spikes since January, fuel has risen in cost by nearly $1 a gallon since this time last year. Prices for regular auto fuel could top $4 by summer, according to consumer reports. Diesel costs approximately 25 cents more than an average gallon of gas.

Along with eliminating unscheduled stops, Naperville has been forced to collect money from students for some field trips – about $5 a head – while encouraging more efficient routes and enforcing a strict no-idling policy.

“There is no idling in front of buildings while waiting for students,” says Bochman, president of the Naperville Transportation Association. “That decision is based more on the rising cost of fuel.”

In Philadelphia, school bus drivers like Chuck Thompson are diligent about Pennsylvania’s anti-idling law, which instructs drivers to shut the engine off if the bus sits idle for at least 5 minutes.

“This helps conserve fuel and emit less exhaust into the atmosphere,” says Thompson, who works for the Radnor School District.

As in Naperville, Thompson says drivers in Radnor are configuring routes for utmost efficiency and making only scheduled stops.

“We might do one stop now instead of two, where it’s possible for a student to walk a little bit,” he says.

Coupled with tight budgets as well as rising fuel costs, Radnor officials have asked parents to pitch in financially as well as help out with late evening sports runs.

“There are more shared costs (with parents) at this time,” says Thompson, the Northeast region director for the National Council of Education Support Professionals.

At a recent school board meeting, Thompson says trustees discussed solutions to expected shortfalls in next year’s budget. Already, the district has laid off three out of 60 bus drivers. The strain on Radnor’s budget is all too familiar to Jolene Tripp of Yucaipa, California.

As bus pass coordinator in the Redands Unified School District Transportation Department, Tripp says recent fuel hikes “add insult to injury.”

“The transportation department has been decimated by budget cuts,” says Tripp, president of Redlands Education Support Professionals Association. “Everything that can be done to us has been done.”

In her district, bus drivers had already lost hours, some up to an hour a day.

“We’re already in a budget crisis,” Tripp says. “When you have already cut everything and you’re still not making it, rising gas prices hurt even more.”

The Brunswick City Schools Board of Directors in Ohio have monitored fuel prices closely and projected pretty well, says Barbara Armour, a district bus driver and member of the board’s financial advisory committee.

“This has been good for everyone — students, employees, and the community as a whole,” she says. “We are taking normal sports trips, for example.”

Schools in the U.S. receive some state funds for transportation costs, but must also rely on local revenue to cover added expenses such as gas price hikes and new purchases.

“We have not purchased buses this year, but our fleet is current,” Armour says. “Mechanics have done a good job of keeping our buses running efficiently.”

Armour says when drivers notice or hear something out of whack on their bus they consult with school mechanics, who respond quickly.

“They do preventive maintenance,” she says.

In some Ohio districts, Armour says busing is down to the state minimum, with parents and school organizations like the booster club “kicking in” for sports-related and other school trips.

“Our school district is solvent,” Armour says. “I can’t say what is going to happen next year, but this year we are making our normal trips.”