- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

The wheels on the buses still go round and round, and area school systems are having to pay more and more.

The summer’s skyrocketing gas prices are forcing school officials to project increases in spending for fuel and transportation when schools reopen in a month.

“We do anticipate it being even higher, just based on what’s been happening,” said Leslie Dews, an assistant transportation administrator for D.C. Public Schools the past four years. “This is the most I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Retail gas prices reached highs of $4.11 for regular unleaded and about $4.84 for diesel two weeks ago, according to AAA. Since then, gas prices have dropped below $4 in Virginia and Maryland - with diesel prices about 80 cents higher - but school system officials were still feeling and fearing the pinch. Most school buses run on diesel fuel.

About $10.7 million has been budgeted for fuel in Fairfax County for the upcoming year, according to Tim Parker, assistant director of transportation for the schools. But Fairfax County shools spokesman Paul Regnier acknowledged that “we probably are going to need more money.”

Cuts are likely in other budget areas to make up for the fuel cost increase, Mr. Regnier said.

We know that we’re not going to have enough in that particular area of the budget,” Mr. Regnier said. “We’re just sort of monitoring it and as time goes on we’ll have to figure out to deal with it.”

Prince George’s County schools spokesman John White said the system - the second-largest in the state and 18th-largest in the country with an enrollment of 130,000 students - has budgeted $9.3 million for fuel next year after budgeting $7.5 million last year.

Mr. White said officials made budget cuts in administrative areas outside the classroom to help make up for the increased amount, and that drivers of the school system’s 1,300 buses receive training to idle their vehicles for no more than three minutes while waiting for students in order to conserve fuel.

“If you’re waiting for the kids to come out of school and the bus is running, if it’s been more than three minutes, turn it off,” Mr. White said.

Miss Dews said her department has not yet projected its fuel costs for next year, but the amount is expected to increase as it has in other school systems.

The District - which uses 727 buses to transport special education students in its school system - spent about $600,000 more than its budgeted amount of $2.8 million for fuel costs during the 2007-08 school year.

Many area school systems - including Fairfax and Montgomery counties - purchase their fuel through a cooperative program facilitated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Carl Kalish, director of purchasing and facilities for the council, said when officials initially submitted bids for the program in 2004, the price of regular gasoline used to formulate a bid was $1.02. He said Monday the comparative price was $3.31, and that participating jurisdictions purchase about 20 million gallons of fuel through the program.

“That’s $40 million more being spent on gasoline,” Mr. Kalish said.

Montgomery County schools spokeswoman Kate Harrison said the system had budgeted $7.9 million for fuel for the new year, but that projection was based on a diesel price of $2.75 per gallon.

School officials have been forced to request an additional $5.3 million from the County Council for fuel costs, she said, and lawmakers are expected to consider the request this fall. Montgomery County operates Maryland’s largest school system, enrolling nearly 138,000 students last year.

Arlington County school officials face the added challenge of operating a fleet of 130 buses on biodiesel fuel, which AAA representative John B. Townsend II said is typically more expensive at the pump than regular diesel. Mr. White said Prince George’s County also plans to introduce biodiesel fuel into its fleet in the near future.

Arlington schools spokesman Frank Bellavia said higher gas prices as well as a projected increase in enrollment have led officials to increase their fuel budget.

The school system spent about $1 million on fuel last year after setting aside a budget amount of $734,500, Mr. Bellavia said. Officials this year expect to spend about $1.2 million.

“It’s just something that we’ve planned for and we’re going with,” he said.

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