Fuel costs putting the brakes on school budgets
In Alabama, for instance, the Jefferson County school system will operate on a four-day workweek this summer in an effort to reduce utility and fuel costs.
The scaled-back workweek is expected to reduce energy costs by between $225,000 and $250,000, according to Nez Calhoun, director of public information for the district.
This summer, the school district will stop lighting and cooling the district’s 52 school buildings and central office on Fridays. At least 350 employees as well as summer school students will be affected by the change, according to Calhoun.
“This is a win-win situation, since employees will see a corresponding reduction in their commuting expenses,” Calhoun told GovPro.com.
The shift to a four-day week comes at a time when energy costs are starting to impact the system’s finances. Weekly heating and cooling bills for the system in the last several weeks have exceeded $50,000; the most recent bill was more than $60,000.
Fortunately, the Jefferson County school system’s 370 buses are in operation only nine months a year—not during the summer. Summer school students have to provide their own transportation, Calhoun noted.
When its buses are operating, the district spends about $63,000 per week on diesel fuel, according to Calhoun. The district, which budgets $1.3 million annually for fuel, could spend more than $2 million on fuel next year.
Calhoun said the district is taking other steps to cope with higher fuel costs.
“We are tightening our belt,” Calhoun told GovPro.com. “Each department’s probably going to have to cut 5 percent to 15 percent off its budget. That could include cutting travel, or budgets could be reduced through attrition—we won’t be filling some positions if they become vacant,”
Dipping into budget reserves
Districts that outsource bus transportation also are feeling the pinch. In Rutherford County, Tenn., where school bus drivers are independent owner/operators, the district recently had to give those drivers several single-digit-percentage boosts in their fuel allowances. A clause in the Rutherford County district contract permits an increase in payments to operators if fuel prices go above a certain level.
“There’s really no way to cope with higher fuel costs. We just have to dip into our budget reserves,” said James Evans, community relations director for the district.
The Rutherford district, which is in a suburb of Nashville, has an enrollment of 36,000. The district has 188 buses in its fleet.
Higher fuel prices put a crunch on other areas of the school budget—not just transportation.
“You also have increases in food prices because of fuel price hikes,” Evans told GovPro.com. “That doesn’t necessarily mean as much if you are talking about someone’s individual home, but when you are dealing with a district that has 42 schools, those kinds of increases can be rather large.”
Green alternatives to Texas-sized fuel bills
In Texas, school districts are taking a variety of steps to compensate for higher fuel prices, such as authorizing and encouraging shorter field trips, prohibiting bus drivers from idling, charging activities fees and hiking prices in the cafeteria lines.
“Fuel costs trickle on through everything,” Tony Harkleroad, a Richardson Independent School District administrator, told the Dallas Morning News. “We either have to cut other things within our budget to cover cost increases like this, or we have to find other ways to raise revenue.”
In the face of Texas-sized fuel bills, school districts in the Lone Star state are turning to green alternatives for relief. The Fort Worth Independent School District, for example, recently purchased 69 aerodynamic buses that feature slanted hoods to allow smoother airflow and limit drag that burns up extra gas.
The Dallas County School District has retrofitted a third of the district’s fleet to run on propane, at a cost of about $5,500 to convert a bus from diesel to propane. The propane-fueled buses can get about the same fuel economy as diesel—around eight miles per gallon—but propane costs the bus provider about $1.65 a gallon and emits fewer pollutants. The district pays $2.85 a gallon for diesel.
There are a few limitations on propane as a fuel: It’s not as readily available, and bus fueling crews need to have some experience with propane fuel systems to work on the buses.
The Dallas school system isn’t alone in exploring alternatives to diesel fuel. Officials at the National School Transportation Association told GovPro.com that skyrocketing fuels costs—and alternative fuels—will be a hot topic at the group’s 2008 annual meeting and convention this July in Calgary.
Get up to speed on bus fueling
When idling, a typical school bus engine burns about half a gallon of fuel per hour. School districts that eliminate unnecessary idling can save scarce budget dollars in fuel costs.
What’s more, school bus engines don’t need to idle more than a few minutes to warm up. Indeed, extended idling may cause engine damage. Engine manufacturers generally recommend no more than three to five minutes of idling.
To estimate the fuel saved by reducing idling in school bus fleets, use this idling calculator.