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Gas Prices May Mean Fewer School Buses or Higher Fees

Unanticipated rise in the price of fuel forces districts to make unpopular decisions.

June 21, 2004|Joy Buchanan and David Haldane | Times Staff Writers

Already suffering from state budget cuts, many California school districts have been caught unaware by a new financial problem: high gasoline prices.

As a result, experts say, school officials are faced with either cutting bus service or passing increased costs on to parents, many of whom already pay hefty fees.

"You're going to see a whole gamut of districts [increasing] fees," said Bob Austin, a spokesman for the California Department of Education's Office of Transportation. "That's an option. You'll have others that reduce the service. Others will just bite the bullet and take the money from somewhere else."

Such is the case in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest, where a $500,000 budget deficit this year -- mainly due to increased fuel costs -- has forced district officials to postpone long-planned purchases of transportation equipment and supplies. "It wasn't something we saw coming," said Anthony Rodriguez, transportation director.

Gas prices In California have gone up 62% in the last year to about $2.32 per gallon, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

"It's been quite a sudden spike," said Rodriguez, whose district has spent more than $4 million on fuel this year to transport 75,000 students a day, mostly to magnet schools, for free.

Though California doesn't require districts to provide home-to-school transportation, except for special-needs students, Austin said, most districts offer it as a convenience for parents and to keep kids safe on their way to and from school.

Even in the best of times, he said, student transportation generally loses money.

And when gas prices go up, he said, smaller school districts -- including about 65% of those in California -- often feel the pinch most acutely because transportation costs comprise a larger portion of their budgets and they lack the buying power to negotiate long-term purchase contracts at bulk rates.

Thus Hemet Unified School District, a medium-sized school district in a rural area of Riverside County, has spent more than $320,000 on bus fuel so far this year, well above the $240,000 in its budget.

The district is considering reducing the number of routes from 62 to 58 next year to help offset the costs. "It's hurting," said Michael Fogerty, transportation director. "We just have to be as efficient as possible."

And at Orange County's Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, administrators hope to cut costs by deferring non-critical maintenance of some buses and by staggering school starting times to cover the district using fewer vehicles. The district transports about 2,700 students daily in 25 buses and is likely to spend $200,000 -- $65,000 more than budgeted -- this fiscal year on fuel and upkeep.

The district is taking what some consider another drastic step as well: raising the price of school bus passes for the first time since 1997. The cost will double, from $180 to $360 a year. "It was either that or the classrooms," said Steve Umber, transportation director. "We've really [delayed] this as long as we could."

The move has angered some parents, who say they may switch to their cars.

"It's going to force us to change our work schedules," said Kirsten Bowman, who plans to get up earlier next fall to drive her children to school. "We're not happy about it at all."

Besides the personal inconvenience, said Bowman, a lawyer for the California Department of Transportation, the change will hurt the environment.

"This will increase traffic on the roadway and go against everything the state is trying to do in terms of congestion relief, cars on the road and preserving resources," she said.

Greg Stratton, a member of the Simi Valley Unified board, which serves more than 21,000 students in eastern Ventura County, said he expects his district to be forced to raise bus fees. "Definitely they're going to go up," he said. "How much is the question."

Stratton said the school board had already requested a survey on how to deal with rising costs, the results of which are due soon. "We're looking at raising fees [and] cutbacks on routes without enough riders," he said.

And Conejo Valley Unified will be able to hold the line, but only because of a contract that ties gas price increases to a local cost-of-living index.

"Our costs only go up about 2, 2 1/2% a year," said Debbie Beauford, a transportation specialist. "It looks as if we'll be able to continue as we have been."

Austin says that few issues inspire a more passionate response from parents than when school districts tamper with transportation.

"Every time somebody raises or institutes new fees," he said, "our phones start ringing. Parents are upset."

School officials in Yorba Linda predict that student bus ridership in their district could be reduced by as much as 15% due to the looming price hike.

This doesn't surprise Bowman. "What they're doing," she said, "is forcing parents to bear the burden. We don't think that's fair."

Times staff writer Lynne Barnes contributed to this report.

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