Fuel Prices Drive School Bus Worries

Fairfax County has budgeted to spend 33 percent more on fuel for its 1,570 buses this school year, but that might not be enough. Its price on diesel has risen 11.5 percent since May.
Fairfax County has budgeted to spend 33 percent more on fuel for its 1,570 buses this school year, but that might not be enough. Its price on diesel has risen 11.5 percent since May. (2003 Photo By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 17, 2005

If filling up a 32-gallon sport-utility vehicle at the pump these days gives you pause, consider Linda Farbry's plight:

She manages Fairfax County's 1,570-bus fleet, the region's largest busing system, transporting 110,000 students a day -- more people than Greyhound -- five days a week, averaging a mere seven to eight miles to the gallon.

As gasoline prices soar to record levels at the close of summer, school administrators are crunching numbers before classes start, figuring out how to pay for fuel-guzzling buses to transport students.

Gas prices across the nation have increased on average by 18 cents in the past week, the biggest one-week jump since the Energy Department began compiling the data 15 years ago. Although area school systems, like county governments, get diesel fuel for buses at a price lower than retail value, their prices still increase with the changes in the market.

Fuel prices for Fairfax County public schools have increased from $1.57 a gallon in May to $1.75 today, Farbry said. "That's a substantial increase in a very short period of time, and that's what has people talking," she said.

The Prince George's County public school system, which operates one of the region's most extensive busing operations, spends several million dollars a year on fuel and has had to increase its fuel budget significantly in recent months, said school board member Robert O. Duncan (Laurel).

Montgomery County public schools budgeted $4.4 million to fuel a fleet of 1,200 buses that transports 96,000 students per day, but officials worry it may not be enough, spokesman Brian Edwards said.

"At this point, we'll continue to try and get the best deal on fuel we can and deal with it," Edwards said.

Fairfax uses 3.5 million gallons of fuel yearly to run its fleet. School officials budgeted $4.85 million for fuel this year, a 33 percent increase from last year's fuel budget of $3.65 million. If gas prices continue to soar, officials are not sure where the extra money will come from.

"Am I worried? Sure," Farbry said. "As long as they keep running buses out there on the road to transport children, we're going to have to keep using fuel. And if the fuel costs keep going up, we're just going to have to absorb that, unless somebody wants to cut programs."

Many systems, including Fairfax, use the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' cooperative purchasing program to buy fuel from low-bid vendors. The council sets a fuel rate bimonthly based on the market, and jurisdictions then solicit bids from vendors, said Karl Kalish, the council's director of purchasing.

For Prince George's, a system that runs a 1,300-bus fleet, carrying more than 95,000 students to and from school daily and guzzling an estimated 3.6 million gallons of fuel each year, even a set rate may not help.

"As long as these prices keep escalating as fast as they're escalating, we're always going to be behind," Duncan said.

Montgomery County schools budgeted last year for fuel to cost $1.35 a gallon, but it ended up averaging $1.85. The county budgeted $3.6 million last year for fuel, but it went $1.9 million over budget.

Although District public schools bus only special education students to school, some of those routes take children as far as Baltimore and Stafford County. The system runs about 600 daily routes in the school year and spent $1.6 million last year on fuel, nearly double the $825,000 the system budgeted.

For the 2005-06 school year, District officials budgeted $1.6 million but might adjust the figure soon if fuel prices continue to climb, said Leslie Dews, a transportation official for D.C. public schools.

Fuel prices are among the highest for Arlington public schools, which operates its fleet of 100 buses on bio-diesel. On Aug. 1, fuel for Arlington's buses cost $2.09 a gallon, 35 cents higher than a year ago. That's a significant increase for a system that runs buses getting eight miles per gallon and traveling about 225 miles a day.

"As with any consumer or homeowner, as the prices continue to go up, we will have to find ways through budgeting of absorbing the cost," schools spokeswoman Linda M. Erdos said.

Anne Arundel County schools budgeted to allow for a 25 percent increase in diesel prices in the 2005-06 school year. The county's 500 buses travel 10 million miles a year and burn 1.3 million gallons at 7.5 miles per gallon. A 10-cent increase in the average price of fuel costs the school system $133,000.

"These prices take money away from the instruction department, ultimately, from the mission," said Winship Wheatley, the system's supervisor of transportation. "No matter what the price is."

Wheatley buys fuel from vendors who bid against a base price set by AAA, a sort of large-scale equivalent to scanning all the stations on the corner for the best price.

"We expect diesel prices to rise, just like gas prices are, and then hopefully they'll settle in spring," Wheatley said. "But we're not counting on that."

Staff writers Nick Anderson and Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.

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