Costly bus fuel forces schools to travel less

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Increased gas prices could mean fewer field trips and bus stops for students in local school districts this year. District officials say they must be more efficient because fuel prices are taking a larger bite out of their budgets.

Columbus schools are projecting a 40 percent increase in fuel costs for the 2008-09 fiscal year, said Robyn Essman, the district's budget director. They plan to spend $5.6 million on fuel this year.

To offset the rising price of gas, options include cutting expenses in transportation, as well as spending less on tutoring sessions and textbooks. "Every department takes a bit of a cut," Essman said. "Just because the price increases doesn't mean you get extra money."

Dublin schools took about 3,000 trips for school activities and sporting events last school year, but they will take fewer trips in the coming year, said treasurer Steve Osborne. District officials will encourage schools to consider field trips with the most educational value and athletic games closer to Dublin. "We are looking at ways to be efficient," Osborne said. "It's costly to transport." The district uses its general operating fund and some reimbursement from the state to pay for fuel. Dublin is charging summer-school students $20 per week for bus transportation. In 2007-08, Dublin spent about $829,000 on bus fuel compared with $618,000 the previous year. Osborne said the district is budgeting $900,000 for the upcoming school year.

Several districts, including Hilliard, Groveport-Madison and Pickerington, are planning to cut stops and consolidate routes. Pickerington students might have to walk a little farther to their stops because the district intends to reduce the number of bus stops. Fuel is burned every time buses accelerate, so fewer stops will save money, said Dave Decsman, the district's transportation consultant. The district also will ask teacher and parent organizations to help cover the fuel costs for field trips, Decsman said. Pickerington schools spent about $485,000 on fuel in the 2008 fiscal year, a 60 percent increase from the previous year. "The sad part is, you're really not budgeting for that kind of an increase," he said. Hilliard officials eliminated a sixth-grade trip to Camp Joy, which is about 70 miles southwest of Columbus in Warren County, because transportation was so expensive.

Fuel costs have hit school districts across the nation, said Bob Riley, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. Riley said a few districts have responded by ending busing for students who live closer to their school. In central Ohio, the Johnstown-Monroe, Marysville, Newark and Southwest Licking districts all stopped busing for high-school students in recent years because of budget cuts, and Canal Winchester plans to do the same in the coming year. "You've gotta make cuts wherever you can make them," Riley said. "But I don't agree with removing kids from school buses."