Fuel prices pose major challenge for schools

Field trips, extracurricular travel curtailed

School buses may be sitting idle for summer vacation, but the fuel costs for running these yellow gas hogs has already affected the budgets of Verde Valley school districts for next school year.
VVN/Shane DeLong

School buses may be sitting idle for summer vacation, but the fuel costs for running these yellow gas hogs has already affected the budgets of Verde Valley school districts for next school year. VVN/Shane DeLong

In a period of sinking revenues and rising costs, the jolt of soaring fuel prices is felt by every school district in the Verde Valley. Budgets are being adjusted, programs changed, field trips and extracurricular travel limited or eliminated. And school administrators fear the coming school year will be even worse.

The pain seems to be shared by all Verde Valley school districts - big or small.

Karin Ward, superintendent of the small Beaver Creek School District, says the cost of everything - from books to food -- is going up. She feels that rising prices in general are directly related to skyrocketing fuel costs.

"We heat our school with propane," Ward said. "It doubled since last year."

Ward says she thinks the district will cut back on field trips and activities that require transportation. "The reality is, if you run out of those monies you have to cut back," She said. "Getting kids to school is our No. 1 priority."

Ward summarized how fuel costs affect her district. Beaver Creek operates five buses. "We drove 250 miles a day," she said. That doesn't include extracurricular travel. She said the district uses about 35 gallons a day. That is being estimated to cost $5 per gallon for the coming school year, compared with $3 figured for last year.

The district's average daily fuel cost will climb from $105 per day to $178.

The Verde Valley's largest school district, Cottonwood-Oak Creek, also feels a fuel-cost pinch.

David Snyder, director of business services for C-OC, estimates that at current prices the district will spend $25,000 to $30,000 more on fuel next year than it did this year.

That increase will affect staff training. "Part of this increase will be offset by changes to our professional growth and staff training program," Snyder said. "Much of the training for next year will be done at the district rather than traveling to Phoenix or Tucson."

Field trip expenses will have more impact at each C-OC campus than on the district budget. Snyder said only a small amount of field trip costs are paid for through the maintenance and operation budget. Instead, each campus covers those costs through donations, tax credits and activity revenues.

Snyder said the district doesn't really have an option of doing much reorganizing of daily bus routes. "A majority of our bus routes are filled to capacity," he said.

At the Camp Verde Unified School District, a detailed analysis of transportation and fuel costs is being completed, according to Superintendent Jeff Van Handel.

He said that study will show how many gallons are needed for each bus route and also for all sport events and field trips.

But fuel costs have already started taking a toll. "The district has cut back on field trips and will likely cut back on other activities to keep the budget balanced," Van Handel said.

Van Handel said all AIA sporting events will be attended, but optional scrimmages may be eliminated. Field trips may end up with fees attached to pay for fuel, and additional fees are likely to help balance the transportation budget.

"The district has already cut two bus routes and reduced the field trip budget to balance the district budget for next year," Van Handel said.

Mingus Union High School District is raising its estimate of fuel costs for next year by 30 percent, according to Kirk Waddle, business manager. "The impact to the budget is estimated to be $33,000," Waddle said.

Waddle said programs are not budgeted for cuts. But the district will review all extracurricular travel and reduce those trips to "only necessary travel." In addition, Waddle said elective field trips will have to be supported by additional fund raising.

Kathleen Fleenor, superintendent at Clarkdale-Jerome School District said her district has already increased next year's fuel budget and is continuing to monitor those costs.

"We are continuing to search for cost-effective alternative fuel options," Fleenor said.

But Fleenor said the district won't reduce the number of field trips next year. "Our field trips are planned around the curriculum objectives and are great learning experiences for our students," she said.

Nancy Alexander, interim superintendent for Sedona-Oak Creek School District, said it will be the year after the coming school year that will hold the biggest impact. "The district contracts their busing with Students First," she said. "The contract has already been approved for next year and there was not an increase."

Alexander said the district budget is really tight, but that is due to increased costs in all areas.

"The cuts that were made in staffing and freezing salaries were because of the overall increase in everything, but not directly to fuel costs," Alexander said.

As far as field trips and activities go, Sedona-Oak Creek is implementing a "Pay for Play" program at the high school for the first time ever.

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