School Buses Run Up High Fuel Bills

School buses are rolling on the first day of school in Oxford County, Maine, but the district has banned field trips and told drivers they may not idle their engines. Even with these fuel-saving measures, school officials are reeling from the high cost of diesel in Maine and around the nation. Charlotte Albright of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network reports.

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Those big, yellow school buses are back on America's roadways again, and school officials are reeling from the cost of filling up their tanks. They're telling drivers not to idle their engines and telling teachers to put field trips on hold. In cold-weather states, school administrators also are worrying about how to pay for heating oil. Charlotte Albright reports from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT reporting:

It's time to rev up the engines in Oxford County in the foothills of western Maine, geographically the largest school district in the state. Buses will travel about 800,000 miles over the next nine months. Buses get stored, repaired and fueled in a big barn. Before diesel prices skyrocketed, mechanic Eric Huntley(ph) used to show up early every morning to warm up all the engines for the drivers. But with diesel prices up 38 percent nationwide, even higher than that in Maine, there's a no-idling rule in this district. Huntley says that may cause some problems this winter.

Mr. ERIC HUNTLEY (School Bus Mechanic): When it's real cold out here, buses don't like to start. And once you get them started, you don't want to shut them off 'cause then you've got to start all over again.

ALBRIGHT: But since buses can go only five to 10 miles on a gallon of diesel, Huntley understands why idling has to be kept to a minimum. The school district has also banned field trips, and superintendent Mark Eastman says if prices really soar, parents may have to provide transportation to some sports events. He says he did plan ahead last spring and adjusted the school budget to cover fuel price increases, but had no idea those costs would rise more than 60 cents per gallon.

Mr. MARK EASTMAN (Superintendent): And last year represented a pretty significant increase. But when I was able to lock in diesel fuel, for example, I paid--filled all my tanks at the end of the year at 1.29. I just locked it in not too long ago, about three weeks ago, at 1.94.

ALBRIGHT: That's a 50 percent increase, and Eastman figures he may need more bus runs to carry students who will leave their cars at home.

Mr. EASTMAN: But I think that that's really going to be a serious issue for our students, who are in high school, who have been driving because the cost of gas is so high.

ALBRIGHT: Eastman says he will urge fashion-conscious teen-agers, who tend to underdress for cold weather in Maine, to button up this year. Thermostats will be turned down a bit to 66 degrees. Most of his fellow superintendents are setting similar guidelines. The majority of Maine's schools were built in the 1950s, when oil and gas were relatively cheap and energy efficiency was a low priority. Now officials in Maine and many other states will have less money to winterize buildings and modernize fleets because they're spending it on fuel.

About 30 percent of the nation's schools have outsourced their transportation programs to private contractors. Those transportation companies then take on the burden of higher prices.

Ms. ROBIN LEEDS (National School Transportation Association): Certainly it's the worst we've seen since the fuel crisis of the '70s.

ALBRIGHT: Robin Leeds is an industry analyst for the National School Transportation Association, which represents private contractors. While she's glad schools are working with contractors to reduce travel costs, Leeds worries that more kids could be asked to walk instead of ride to school.

Ms. LEEDS: The reason that worries us is that we know kids are so much safer when they're on a school bus than when they're going to school any other way.

ALBRIGHT: Leeds cites a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences showing that about 820 students die in accidents on the way to or from school every year; only five of them are riding the bus. For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright in Portland, Maine.

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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