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Diesel to burn extra $1-million hole in Pinellas school budget

The Pinellas County School District's 700 buses will rumble to life with the start of a new academic year Tuesday, carrying liquid gold in their bellies. • Their precious cargo — diesel fuel — averaged $4.54 a gallon in the Tampa Bay area last week, up from $2.86 a gallon this time last year. • The 59 percent increase translates to nearly $1-million in additional cost for the district over the next 10 months, transportation director Rick McBride said. • "Whatever happens to consumers at the pump is happening to the district," he said. "It's pretty much correlated."

Pinellas buys its diesel through a wholesaler, McBride said. Besides getting the fuel for just a few cents over what service stations pay, the supply is guaranteed. The down side is that when fuel prices go up at the pump, they go up for the district.

That's one reason administrators worked hard over the summer to reduce routes.

But despite an estimated decline in the number of students attending Pinellas schools this year, bus ridership is still predicted to be 45,000 to 46,000, McBride said.

That's because parents, faced with higher fuel costs themselves, might decide to put their children on the bus rather than drive them, he said.

Pinellas is hardly the only district feeling the pinch. Rising diesel prices have forced Hillsborough to budget $4.4-million more for fuel this year. Polk is budgeting $2.3-million more and Pasco, $1.2-million more.

Across the state, many districts have scrambled to streamline bus routes and switch school start times.

In Broward County, district officials consolidated routes between magnet schools, in some cases requiring up to three schools to share one bus.

St. Lucie County switched to a park-and-ride system for a school that draws students countywide. It's also making bus drivers wash their vehicles instead of relying on contractors.

"People are having to make some hard choices," said Beverly Slough, president of the Florida School Boards Association and a School Board member in St. Johns County near Jacksonville.

St. Johns compacted its middle school schedule and rearranged start times to save money.

Like many districts, it also eliminated "courtesy" rides for students who live less than 2 miles from school. One district that didn't to that — Brevard — decided to charge students $2 per day for those rides.

Rising fuel costs aren't only a problem for transportation. Many observers worry that they're compromising academics, too, especially when coupled with economic woes that, in Florida, have led to the first statewide cuts to school spending in decades.

"There simply is nothing left to cut," Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators, wrote in an e-mail. "Cuts in transportation mean cuts in bus routes, fewer after-school programs, or any program beyond the school day. This impacts at-risk students hardest."

In a July poll, 99 percent of 546 superintendents surveyed by the American Association of School Administrators said rising fuel costs were affecting their districts.

Forty-four percent said they were cutting back on student field trips. Another 32 percent were considering it.

More than three in four superintendents said their states were not doing anything to help.

In Florida, the state sent districts $484-million for student transportation last year — or about 45 percent of the total cost.

Despite dramatically increased fuel prices, the Board of Education is considering a legislative budget request that asks for roughly the same amount next year.

Pinellas officials say they'll continue to look for ways to save money as the year progresses.

"It might be possible to cut some routes," McBride said, "but it could go the other way. We need to get two weeks into the school year to know for sure."

By the numbers
School year Last year This year (projected)
Routes 712 699
Children transported 46,085 46,000
Total miles 15,865,418 15,500,000
Gallons of fuel 2,486,763 2,400,000
Fuel cost $7.8-million $8.7-million
Source: Pinellas County School District

Rules of the road

From the district's Code of Student Conduct:

• No portion of the students' bodies shall be outside the bus windows at any time.

• Students are not permitted to eat, drink or smoke on the bus.

• Students shall not throw any items out of the bus windows.

• Students are not permitted to take on the bus reptiles, bugs, animals, or marine life, dead or alive, without prior approval of the principal or his designee.

• Students may not carry on the bus band instruments which interfere with the seating and safety of others.

• No obscene language or gestures will be tolerated either at the bus stops or on the bus.

• No tape recorders, radios, cellular phones or televisions will be permitted without the written permission of the principal.

• Students shall not engage in conversations with the driver while the bus is in motion.

• For the complete list, go to www.pinellas.k12.fl.us/is/trans/safety.html.

>>FAST FACTS

Know your bus route

Children eligible for a bus ride — those who live 2 miles or more from school — should have received a postcard with their bus route information. Parents who have not received a postcard should call the child's assigned school or the district's call center at 587-2020. For more information, go to www.pcsb.org, click on "Parents" and then click on "Transportation."

Diesel to burn extra $1-million hole in Pinellas school budget 08/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:54pm]
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