Fuel costs present school officials with a ‘very, very serious situation’
By Sarah Nagem
High diesel prices, paired with state school leaders’ warnings of budget shortfalls, have local school systems worried about transportation costs.
If the cost of diesel holds steady next school year, the Rowan-Salisbury School System will have to use about $227,000 in local funds to subsidize the state’s fuel reimbursements, said Gene Miller, assistant superintendent for operations.
That’s a big jump from the $65,000 in local funds the school system spent last year for fuel.
“It’s a very, very serious situation,” Miller said.
The state doles out fuel money to school districts, who pitch in extra money when necessary.
The state Board of Education warned school districts last week that it might have to withhold $50 million for fuel and teachers’ bonuses.
In the Rowan-Salisbury system, the cuts would be about $705,000.
Miller said the shortfall is forcing him to look at ways to cut back travel expenses. School leaders could choose to reduce the number of field trips, for example.
“I think that’s a good possibility,” Miller said.
But the school board hasn’t talked about changing the travel rules, said Dr. Jim Emerson, chairman of the board.
To cut corners, Emerson said schools might have to prioritize trips. Anything deemed to not enhance “student achievement” might have to go by the wayside, he said.
“There are some things that you’re simply going to have to do without,” Emerson said.
He said limiting athletic trips likely won’t be an option. Gate sales, especially at football and basketball games, help pay for fuel to bus students to games.
“That’s almost a break-even deal,” Emerson said.
Miller has gone as far as to suggest a four-day school week, with a longer school day. But the state requires local systems to to be up and running 180 days a year and 1,000 hours.
Miller said that possibility would face opposition, anyway. Besides state leaders having to change the rules, some parents might not like the schedule change.
Requiring more students to walk to school instead of riding the bus isn’t an option either, Miller said.
Elementary and middle school students can’t ride the bus if they live within a half-mile from their school. High school students can’t ride if they live within one mile.
“Those guidelines were written with safety in mind,” Miller said.
Though options might be limited, Miller said the school system might have to make some changes. Rowan-Salisbury schools spent about $908,000 last school year just on fuel to get kids to and from school ó about a quarter of the total from the state’s transportation funding.
The system spent another $240,000 last school year for athletics and activity buses, said Johnny Brown, the transportation director.
Rowan-Salisbury schools have 197 yellow buses, 50 activity buses and 20 spares, Brown said. All but six run on diesel and hold about 60 gallons of fuel.
At $4.20 a gallon ó which has been the recent state rate ó a fill-up for one bus costs about $252.
“It’s looking terrible,” Brown said of budget problems.
The Kannapolis City Schools system is expecting to shell out about $100,000 in local funds next school year for fuel, said Will Crabtree, director of business operations. Last year, the amount was $47,000.
Crabtree said he’s not sure yet what the state board’s warning would mean for Kannapolis schools. But the situation isn’t looking good, he said.
“That’s a burden on our local budget,” Crabtree said.
In Rowan-Salisbury, the burden comes at a time when school leaders are already making sacrifices.
County Commissioners gave schools about $32.5 million in local money to operate next school year. That’s more than $1 million short of what school leaders had requested to boost teacher supplements by $500 and to create new technology positions.
Now, the increase in teacher supplements is no longer possible, Emerson said, which he was disappointed about.
Emerson is also doubtful about new technology jobs.
“That’s probably down the drain too ó unless we do some shifting around,” he said.