Bus fuel stretching schools' budgets

Price of diesel is up 38% since last year

The Cost Of Energy

August 29, 2005|By John Fritze | John Fritze,SUN STAFF

Owen Baldwin checked the emergency flares, practiced driving his route and waxed his 30-foot school bus so well he can see his reflection in its bright yellow paint.

"We're ready to go," said Baldwin, a 51-year-old driver with the Baltimore County public school system who will be on the road today as schools reopen across the region. "We're set."

The bus might be ready, but in many cases the budget is not.

As summer's end brings thousands of students back to classrooms, schools are faced with record diesel prices as they struggle to keep their fuel-guzzling fleets on the road.

The average price for a gallon of diesel nationally is up about 38 percent from last year, to $2.64, according to AAA. Although many school districts buy fuel at wholesale rates, they're feeling the pinch.

And considering that a school bus gets less than 8 miles per gallon on average, the cost of transporting kids can quickly spin out of control.

Baltimore County, which moves 70,000 children a day on 850 buses, pays $2.20 a gallon. Last year, on average, the district spent $1.74.

Anne Arundel County public schools pay $2.53 a gallon - about a 40-cent increase over last year. Multiplied by the 10 million miles its drivers cover annually, the difference will mean a $536,000 increase in this year's fuel costs.

And that's if prices don't go up more.

"There's no question that this expense has a dramatic impact," said Winship Wheatley, the district's superintendent of transportation.

"I know that this school system would prefer that we spend that additional money on instruction," he said.

Wheatley - who has been around long enough to have driven a school bus during the oil shortages of the mid-1970s - said the recent price spike is about the worst he has seen during his career.

A survey of about 530 districts conducted recently by the Association of School Business Officials found that 96 percent of administrators feel that the rising price of fuel is putting the squeeze on their budgets.

Asked in the survey what officials are doing to make ends meet, one administrator responded simply: "praying."

Absent divine intervention, districts are reducing field trips, prohibiting drivers from idling and cutting buses from the fleet. Fairfax County, Va., public schools increased the price of lunch by 20 cents, in part to pay for fuel.

Administrators in the Baltimore area said they expect to take less-drastic measures.

Baltimore County school officials recently purchased a line of buses that get better mileage - up to about 10 miles per gallon. Baldwin, a retired deputy sheriff, was happy to lift the hood and show visitors the engine's manufacturer: Mercedes-Benz.

Most drivers motored through their routes for practice and fueled their buses late last week in anticipation of the first day of school.

Depending on the length of the route, some buses will need to refuel every day - the process can take 10 minutes - while others might go as long as three days before refueling.

The county made its last bulk purchase of fuel in July, but officials couldn't say precisely how long that supply would last.

Baltimore City school administrators are hoping to boost their purchasing power by buying fuel in partnership with City Hall. City schools provide bus service to 15,000 special-education students. Other students walk or receive vouchers to ride public transportation.

Several officials said there is little that can be done to grapple with fuel costs. Like other businesses, schools are also paying more for deliveries, yardwork and heating.

Harford County public schools could spend $900,000 more in fuel than last year - more than double the $400,000 set aside this year in case prices went up.

Howard County public schools pay $2.45 a gallon, compared with $1.78 a year ago, said Glenn Johnson, the district's director of transportation.

Johnson said his district is waiting before making drastic cuts.

If prices remain steady, the district projects it will spend $800,000 more on fuel this year.

"It has just kept going up and up and up," Johnson said. "And there's a long way to go yet in the school year."

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