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)|
|Gallons of fuel||2,486,763||2,400,000|
|Source: Pinellas County School District|