Fuel Prices Squeeze School Districts

from The New York TImes.

Published: September 5, 2008
SCHOOL budgets are the rock. Surging fuel costs are the hard place. Crushed in between are districts across the area, beginning the school year with fleets of buses that typically get six miles to the gallon.

Phil Marino for The New York Times
Inside Middle Country school district’s compressed-natural-gas-powered bus is Roger Meyer, transportation director, and next to the bus, Roberta A. Gerold, superintendent

As the cost of diesel fuel has soared well past what many districts budgeted for last spring, school officials are rethinking their transportation needs, making big-ticket spending cuts and a host of surgical trims.

Some districts are eliminating field trips and after-school buses. Many are consolidating routes, causing some students to walk farther to their stops and others to lose their buses altogether. They are holding off on new teachers, counselors and textbooks, and teaming with neighboring districts for prekindergarten, special education and private school transportation.

“It’s affecting everybody, everywhere,” said Ingrid Reitano, president of the School Transportation Supervisors of New Jersey and transportation supervisor for Monroe Township in Middlesex County. “People are going to be giving up some things.”

How much will become clearer in the first weeks of school, when ridership patterns and bus routes firm up. But with fuel prices volatile (diesel costs have begun to level nationally at about $4.26 a gallon, up from $2.92 at this time last year), administrators are preparing for a year of budget nips and tucks and long-term strategizing.

They are not alone. In a national survey of superintendents released in July by the American Association of School Administrators, 99 percent said that rising fuel costs had forced across-the-board cuts.

“Everything is on the table,” said William Clark, chief operating officer for New Haven Public Schools, which is paying $1.9 million this year for fuel to transport 20,000 students, $623,571 more than last year.

New Haven, Connecticut’s second-largest district, has focused on consolidating bus runs. “You’re finding the furthest point out and picking up as many kids as you can on the way to school,” Mr. Clark said.

New Haven is also adjusting “bell times” to better “flow the routes” among its 50-odd schools, he said, and shoehorning field trips into the hours its 268 buses are contracted for.

Such efficiencies allowed the system to add a new school this year without adding the six new buses that it would normally have been required to contract for, at a cost of $68,000 per year per bus, said Teddi Barra, New Haven’s transportation director. If costs get worse, field trips may go, Mr. Clark said, along with other expenditures not required by the state, like after-school buses.

Field trips have already taken a hit in the Middle Country school district on Long Island, where Roberta A. Gerold, the schools superintendent, faced a 45 percent increase in fuel costs. “Where we have local field trips and can hire coaches” — meaning private buses — “we’ll try to do that,” she said. Students will take more “virtual field trips,” exploring places by computer, she said.

In New Jersey, some districts plan to pare “courtesy busing” for students who live closer than the distance required by the state for free busing — two miles for elementary students and two and a half miles for high school. Steven Cea, business manager for West Milford Township schools, is making cuts as he tries to cover an expected transportation shortfall of $78,000. About 3,500 students could be affected in the district, which covers 80 square miles, Mr. Cea said.

West Milford is reorganizing bus routes and teaming with districts to transport special-needs students and athletic teams, an approach many districts have taken or are considering.

To save on fuel costs, many districts in Connecticut have joined fuel-buying consortiums. Fred Hurley, the Newtown district’s director of public works, locked in diesel at $3.07 a gallon in March with the Capitol Region Purchasing Council.

In New York and New Jersey, districts often save money by buying fuel under a state bid. But many private bus companies provide their own fuel and have contracts that allow them to impose surcharges when fuel prices rise. Some districts are hoping to gain control of costs by curtailing such contracts and expanding their own fleets.

Ms. Reitano, the transportation supervisor in Monroe, N.J., fuels her 64 in-house buses, eight of which she added this year, with diesel bought under a state contract. About 75 percent of her fleet is district-owned, she said. “We can run our own buses for less money,” she said.

The Middle Country district is seeking savings through alternative fuels. It added one compressed-natural-gas-powered bus to its 120-bus fleet this year, and won bond approval last May for 18 more, Ms. Gerold, the superintendent, said.

IN Piscataway, N.J., where transportation costs are up about 4.5 percent from last year, the district bought 22 new buses this year to supplement 107 buses run by private companies with fuel-included contracts, said Brian DeLucia, business administrator for the Piscataway Township Schools. The district also signed on to the state’s fuel-purchasing contract. “We’re projecting a solid $200,000 — a nice little chunk of change — in savings this year,” he said.

For some districts, particularly those in the middle of multiyear agreements, such arrangements may simply postpone the pain. Brad A. Cohen, vice president of B and B Transportation in Bethany, Conn., said that some of his school contracts last year left him covering diesel increases, even as his costs for tires, parts and repairs increased.

In the future, B and B will put fuel clauses in every contract to pass on costs to districts, said Mr. Cohen, whose 75 buses serve three public school districts, Woodbridge, Bethany and Amity, and seven private schools.

Some districts are already getting a preview of the higher costs: In Milford, Conn., the price for busing of private school students tutored out-of-district went up 20 to 30 percent, said Phillip Russell, deputy superintendent of operations. And when Yonkers recently put out a bid for vans to be used during the school day, “the bids came back about 80 percent higher than the previous year we’d bid them out,” said Jerrilynne Fierstein, the district’s communications director. “We decided not to get them.”

Federal relief may be coming. Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York plans to introduce bills this month calling for the Energy Department to award emergency grants to low-income districts and to expand tax credits to make hybrid school buses more affordable. Whether districts will invest in hybrids, which can cost $100,000 more than diesel buses, is far from certain.

“I don’t think in this climate you’re going to see districts going out and replacing buses that they don’t immediately need to replace,” said Lisa P. Davis, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association. “You’re going to find districts looking at ways to improve efficiency within what they’re already doing.”

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