Fuel Costs Limit Bus Services

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If the price of gas continues to rise, Payson and Pine-Strawberry School Districts will be forced to make budget cuts and curtail extracurricular programs to keep those yellow school buses rolling.

Bobette Sylvester, PUSD assistant superintendent, said administrators are considering alternatives to help pay for diesel fuel, which the district purchases at a discounted rate of $2.47 a gallon -- 75 percent higher than when transportation costs were finalized back in July.

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Payson School District bus driver Ed McMillian fuels up before starting his route Tuesday morning. High gas prices are changing bus operations in Rim Country. "These older buses on the routes in town only get 7 or 8 miles a gallon," McMillian said.

"We are probably going to have to scale back bus trips," Sylvester said. "By state law, we know our funding is not going to increase."

In Pine, first-year Superintendent Mike Clark struggles with the same dilemma.

"We are going to have to move some dollars around somewhere to pay the higher costs," Clark said.

The high cost of fuel is listed as a discussion item on the Sept. 13 Pine-Strawberry school board meeting agenda. To find construction alternatives to solve the gas-budget crunch, bus drivers are being called on to help find solutions.

"We've been cautioned about idling for a long time," PUSD driver Ed McMillian said. "We're supposed to shut down the engine if we are going to be waiting for more than just a few minutes."

Athletic teams and extracurricular programs are also being asked to make concessions.

"On trips for sports, we're putting more teams on the same bus," McMillian said. "On Saturday, they put (boys and girls soccer) teams on the same bus and canceled the other bus."

If even more travel must be curtailed to save fuel, Payson administrators said they will attempt to curb noncritical trips. In Pine-Strawberry where there are not enough extracurricular programs and athletic teams to make a huge difference in the travel budget, the first cuts would be to do away with field trips, Clark said.

In Pine-Strawberry, however, doing away with buses that transport high school students to PHS could be a cost-cutting measure under extreme budget situations, Clark said.

Barbara Sprinkle's freshman son started Payson High School this year. She sighed exasperation at the thought of suspending bus service to PHS.

"I wouldn't even know where to start," Sprinkle said. "Except for carpool, and most parents work. I don't approve of kids driving other kids. There's at least one wreck a week. An adult would have to drive so it would be difficult."

Kevin Krogulski said if bus service between Pine and Payson is stopped, he'd consider home-schooling his 15-year-old son.

Administrators can pull funds from the maintenance and operations budget to help pay increased fuel costs.

"But that is taking dollars away from other areas where it's needed," Sylvester said.

"That's robbing Peter to pay Paul," Clark said.

Prices soar

When the 2005-2006 school year budget was adopted in July, $110,000 was allocated for fuel costs, which represented a $15,000 increase over the previous year.

"No one could have predicted what was going to happen (with fuel prices)," she said.

It is evident that increased fuel costs could deplete district budgets before the end of the school year, Sylvester said.

In Pine-Strawberry, the same scenario is unfolding.

"We will deplete our (fuel) budget before the end of the year," Clark said.

Rising fuel costs are not problems unique to Payson. Around the country, soaring prices are making it more expensive for districts to transport children.

A study done by the Association of School Business Officials International reports, 61 percent of school officials said high fuel prices are hurting their districts.

In California, skyrocketing fuel prices have some district considering cutting bus routes and charging students for bus services.

In Orange County, Fla., Superintendent Ron Blocker warned that students might have to soon find their own way to school. He suggested parents begin planning car pools while suspending bus trips for sports teams and other extracurricular activities.

Cheaper but still costly

Because districts buy fuel in bulk from lowest bidders, schools usually receive price breaks.

The $2.47 per gallon Mesa-based provider, Trejo charges Payson is actually cheaper than the prices other districts around the country pay.

The American Automobile Association said, some districts are paying more than $3 a gallon for diesel fuel.

But filling up a bus in Payson or Pine-Strawberry will cost up to $300 and quickly guzzled by long-distance routes.

"The trip bus Saturday (to Eagar-Springerville) got about 9 miles a gallon," McMillian said. "These older buses on routes in town get 7 or 8 miles a gallon."

While Payson and Pine-Strawberry administrators and school board members search for answers to higher fuel problems, they agree that only a sudden and dramatic drop in fuel prices will put an end to impending budget cutbacks.

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