School districts battle high fuel costs

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- As fuel costs continue to rise, school districts across the state are closely watching their transportation budgets.

Michael Brown, transportation director for the Ferguson-Florissant School District in St. Louis County, said Monday that his district's fuel costs rose $50,000 last school year from the previous year, and he's hoping they don't go up that much again. But so far, he said, the district has no plans to cut back bus services.

"It's tough," he said. "We're looking at routes very closely and making sure that we are efficient."

In Missouri, the average price for a gallon of diesel fuel, which many buses use, is $2.39, AAA said Monday. That's a 37 percent jump from a year ago, when the price was $1.75 a gallon. Unleaded gasoline prices are similar.

Brown said the district, which handles its own bus fleet, is encouraging schools to combine classes and share buses for field trips to save money.

Brown, who also is a past president of the Missouri Association of Pupil Transportation, said many other districts are in the same spot.

"It's pretty universal for most districts," he said. "If they're going to have kids go to school, they're going to have to realign the budget. Everyone is just watching it closely, but if it continues to jump, they're going to have to make some tough decisions."

Lynn Solomon, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Business Officials, agreed.

"Those districts on limited budgets will have to pull money from somewhere to pay that extra cost," he said. Especially for districts that cover a large territory, "it becomes a burden."

Solomon said higher fuel prices can affect other school costs as well, such as food deliveries, and said the costs for natural gas to heat schools this winter also is a worry.

The chief financial officer for the St. Joseph school district, Janet Pullen, said the northwest Missouri district spent $185,000 for fuel last school year and the budget for this school year increased to $356,000.

St. Joseph contracts its transportation services with Laidlaw Education Services but still pays for the fuel. The district also owns and fuels 17 small buses for special education services.

"If we need to spend more we might have to cut money from another budget or take money out of reserves," Pullen told the St. Joseph News-Press. "At this point, I can only hope prices go back down."

To help save on fuel, some buses in the St. Joseph district have anti-idling equipment, which shuts down a bus if it's idle for more than 10 minutes.

Laidlaw said it provides transportation for 35 districts in Missouri, with some buying their own fuel. Others have a contract clause so Laidlaw can pass on higher -- or lower -- fuel costs to districts. In some cases Laidlaw bears the burden if costs shift.

Laidlaw spokeswoman Tiffini Bloniarz said the company too has felt the pinch of higher fuel prices. She said strategies such as making bus routes efficient and being on the road no longer than needed are all more important as costs rise.

A year ago, the Ferguson-Florissant district budgeted $170,000 for fuel, and Brown hopes this year doesn't go above $200,000.

"To what degree we're going to have to keep increasing it, we don't know," he said.

If costs get too high, the district could be forced to reduce routes, field trips or buses for extracurricular activities, he said.

"The last thing the district would want to cut would be service to and from school for the regular day," he said.

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