Fuel Costs May Force Some Kids To Walk

Montgomery Weighs Altering School Bus Rules

Montgomery County's fuel bill for its school buses is projected to hit $7.9 million the coming fiscal year. The last time the school board changed bus rules, it saved $250,000 a year.
Montgomery County's fuel bill for its school buses is projected to hit $7.9 million the coming fiscal year. The last time the school board changed bus rules, it saved $250,000 a year. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008; Page A01

Here's how rising fuel prices affect an organization with a fleet of 1,273 school buses: The Montgomery County school board today will consider giving Superintendent Jerry D. Weast emergency powers to make students walk farther to school, if need be, in the coming academic year.

The school system's diesel costs have more than doubled in four years, from $3.6 million in fiscal 2005 to a projected $7.9 million for fiscal 2009, which begins next month. It's a hardship shared by the Fairfax County school system, with more than 1,500 buses; the Prince George's County system, with 1,285 buses; and other area systems that transport tens of thousands of students daily and are paying more for fuel than the average parent at an Exxon pump on Rockville Pike.

"The last purchase we made was $4.40 a gallon," said John Matthews, Montgomery schools transportation director. A one-penny rise in price costs the school system $33,000 a year.

School officials generally think of fuel as a fixed cost. But it's really not, Weast reminded board members June 10 in Rockville. Should prices continue to rise, the school system could save money by raising maximum walking distances for students, because more walkers means fewer buses. Currently, elementary school students walk up to a mile, middle school students 1.5 miles and high school students two miles.

"You may have to come to a very delicate decision that you'll have to make sometime during the next year if the costs continue to go up," Weast said during a discussion of transportation policy. "A million [dollar] cost in fuel is about 16 1/2 teaching slots."

With the proposed rule change, Weast said he was "sending a very strong signal" about the dire state of the school system's $2 billion budget over the coming year. The proposal would allow him to adjust walking distances after "expedited" public comment, possibly a few days rather than a month. Despite that, school officials stress that they don't anticipate actually asking anyone to walk farther to school in the 2008-09 academic year.

Board members are scheduled to consider the policy revision today. How they vote might depend on public outcry. The board last changed walking distances in 1996, voting to extend the maximum high-school trek from 1.75 miles to two. Dozens of parents called school officials in protest. The change effectively eliminated three bus runs per high school, for a savings of $250,000 a year. Nearly 2,000 students lost their ride.

"Right now, our biggest uncontrollable cost is transportation, and gasoline," board member Stephen Abrams (Rockville-Potomac) said. "You're talking about an expense that does not directly correlate to education," he added, alluding to the axiom that when one contemplates cuts, it's best to steer clear of the classroom.

Fuel costs are hitting other systems just as hard, prompting rules to govern such practices as idling in a parked bus and logging "deadhead miles," or those traveled with no students aboard. School systems are combining a route here, eliminating a stop there and using Global Positioning System software to squeeze every drop of fuel efficiency from their routes. No other area locality, however, appears to be considering making more students walk to school.

In Loudoun County, school fuel prices have increased by $2 a gallon in 12 months, from $2.30 a gallon in May 2007 to $4.28 last month, according to transportation director Michael Lunsford, pushing the fuel budget toward $5 million. The school system has enforced a strict no-idle policy.

The Prince William County system has budgeted $5.8 million for diesel in fiscal 2009 for its 857-bus fleet, an increase of 40 percent. School officials say they are maintaining a one-mile walk zone around all schools and urging drivers to idle no more than three minutes at a time.

Fuel costs have more than doubled since fiscal 2005 for the Prince George's system, which has spent $10 million for diesel in the fiscal year that ends next Monday. Officials issued a memo to remind drivers not to idle excessively. Bus stops have been combined, and transportation officials are using satellite technology to monitor bus speeds and maximize fuel efficiency. Walking distances are 1.5 miles for elementary and middle school students and two miles for high school students.

The Fairfax School Board, which transports more students daily than any other school system except New York's, has budgeted $8.4 million for fuel in fiscal 2009, compared with $4.3 million in fiscal 2005, according to budget documents. Students walk up to one mile to elementary schools and 1.5 miles to secondary schools.

For perspective, consider the scenario in summer 2005. School systems regionwide at that time were hastily reworking budgets as they watched fuel prices approach record levels -- $2 a gallon.

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