No Fuel for Schools: Districts Cut Back

Students as young as 5 may soon be forced to walk more than a mile to kindergarten in one Maryland County that is struggling to fill its school bus gas tanks in the face of rising oil prices.

"When we budgeted for the 2009 school year the price of fuel was $2.75," Chris Cram, the public information officer for the Montgomery Country School Board, told "Now it's much, much higher."

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"We'll begin the school year with a fuel budget deficit of $5.362 million," said Cram, who added that the suburban D.C. county has the 13th largest bus fleet in the nation, transporting 96,000 students daily. "It's a huge problem."


Gas prices in the county have been well beyond $4 a gallon, according to Cram, who said the 1,275 buses used by the schools daily aren't exactly fuel efficient: One bus averages 6.1 miles per gallon, and the entire fleet travels about 100,000 miles per day.

While nothing has been decided yet, Cram said that the school board will meet this week to vote on whether the schools' superintendent should be permitted to alter the county's policy on which students receive free transportation to school via bus and which should be expected to walk, or locate other means of transportation.

As it stands, high schoolers must live more than 2 miles away from school, middle schoolers more than 1.5 miles, and elementary school students more than 1 mile in order to be eligible to ride the bus, Cram said.

Barring special circumstances — including extremely busy streets in the area or special needs — all other Montgomery County students who live closer to their schools must walk or find their own rides.

Indeed, as gas prices continue to rise, so do the number of school districts that are starting to amend their longstanding policies in an effort to ease the pain at the pump.

Commuters Struggle at Community Colleges

The community colleges in North Carolina, for instance, are seeing the negative effects of rising fuel prices with more and more students figuring out ways to take as many classes in as few days as possible, cutting down on the number of times they must drive to campus each week.

"You have to think about what the nature of a community college is — we don't have dorms and so all our students have to commute to campus," said Audrey Bailey, the spokeswoman for the North Carolina Community College System. "Also many of our students are adults who have family responsibilities and so, in addition to trying to get to school, they have to get to work."

There's been an increase in distance learning — online courses or classes on television — since gas prices began to soar, Bailey said.

Bailey said that one of the 58 community colleges has already decided to shorten the school week from five days to four, and the system's administrators are planning to meet next month to discuss other means to help students cope with fuel prices.

"We have heard that there have been students in Durham, N.C., who have dropped out [because of gas prices]," said Bailey, who added that gas has tipped beyond $4 a gallon in the past few days.

The North Carolina schools, should they decide to uniformly shorten the school week, won't be the first to do so — the MAACRAY School District in western Minnesota voted in May to switch to a four-day school week beginning in September in order to save on heating and busing costs.

Athletic Competitions, Field Trips Feel The Crunch, Too

Student athletes and those looking forward to class field trips may be disappointed come the fall when they realize that many of the best parts of school are being sacrificed because of high gas prices.

In Mississippi, all high school sports teams, except for football (the big revenue maker), have had their game schedules cut by 10 percent in order to reduce the cost of fueling buses.

"Because of the fuel costs, the administration asked us to look at cutting back [on bus usage]," said N.Z. Bryant, the deputy director of the Mississippi High School Athletic Association. "We cut schedules in order to help offset the costs."

In New Jersey, one community orchestra is worried that its long-awaited trip to Austria may be more expensive than expected, thanks to fuel prices and airline surcharges.

"[A trip to Austria] is wonderful and exciting for these kids, but it's just a huge challenge to make sure it's affordable," Barbara Goldberg, the president of the Youth Orchestras of Essex County, told in an interview last week.

Traditional school trips to city zoos and museums are also feeling the economic crunch, as schools begin to turn to computer presentations — rather than bus rides — to enrich their students' learning.

"Gas prices really are driving business," said Ruth Blankenbaker, the executive director of the Center for Interactive Learning at Collaboration, an Indianapolis-based company that helps connect schools take virtual field trips.

"The number of schools that are registering to request electronic field trips in the last 12 months has really increased," said Blankenbaker, adding that the company has experienced a 55 percent increase in business in the past year.

"[The] rising gas prices, shrinking school budgets, and air travel hassles combine to make virtual travel a viable way to experience our world," Blankenbaker said. "If these conditions were present without the technologies we have available today, students would be cut off from so many enriching experiences.

"Thankfully, we can continue our travels," she added, "even if it's only a virtual trip."