- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Area school systems are working on plans to cover their busing costs as gasoline prices hit record highs out of fear that fuel budgets will be near empty before the school year is over.

Some systems haven’t opened their doors for the year, so fuel budgets aren’t hurting yet, but high diesel prices, which hit a record $2.67 in the D.C. area Tuesday, have caused school officials to examine their options.

Arlington Public Schools’ August purchase of biodiesel for buses cost $2.09 per gallon at a bulk rate. Last year, it was $1.74.

“We’ve already felt the increase, but not to the point we’re going to feel it” once classes begin Sept. 6, said spokeswoman Laura Neff-Henderson.

Arlington Public Schools increased its fuel budget by 10 percent for fiscal 2006, which ends July 1, to $655,600. Two years ago, the school system budgeted $427,000.

“We’ll have to figure it out … we don’t have the option of not providing the buses,” Mrs. Neff-Henderson said.

School officials say they probably will have to shuffle money in their budgets if fuel prices continue at their current — or higher — levels.

Fairfax County Public Schools moved $1.2 million into the diesel budget because prices were high last year. The school system was able to take funds from its snow-removal and heating budgets because of a warm winter, spokesman Paul Regnier said.

So far, Fairfax has been able to move money around each year to cover the budget and expects to do it again this year.

“We’ve always … ended the year with a balanced budget. We have had times where expenses have been higher overall than we anticipated, and we’ve pulled in the reins and slowed spending in other years — that could conceivably happen,” he said.

Montgomery County Public Schools and Alexandria City Public Schools are bracing to move money around, too.

“Later on [in the year], we’ll start having to possibly transfer money from other areas into that account,” said Alexandria City Public Schools spokeswoman Amy Carlini. “We’re just waiting to see.”

“At this point, we’re dealing with it as best as we can,” said Kate Harrison, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County Public Schools. “The buses will be rolling, they’ll be gassed up because kids need to get to school. But gas prices are higher than we thought they would be.”

Prince George’s County Public Schools and D.C. Public Schools did not return calls for comment.

Nationwide, school districts are facing similar challenges, and each district must deal with it differently, said Charles Gauthier, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

School buses are a significantly safer form of transportation to and from school than is walking, biking or even getting rides to school from parents.

Half of the nation’s 50 million public-school students take buses. Over eight years, an average of five people were killed a year while riding school buses compared with an average of 800 students who were killed while driving, walking or biking to school, Mr. Gauthier said.

“If, because of fuel prices going up, you have to reduce the number of yellow school buses available because you can’t afford the fuel, you take kids out of the safest vehicle there is on the highways,” he said.

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