Rising fuel prices show no signs of returning to pre-2021 levels anytime soon, leaving school districts to worry about a wide range of impacts on their budgets and operations.
More than nine out of 10 district leaders who responded to an EdWeek research center survey between March 30 and April 8 said fuel prices in their district had risen since the start of the school year. Fourteen percent of district managers said fuel costs had doubled or more than doubled since then, and 56% said they had increased between 1% and 50%.
Bus drivers contracting with districts are already feeling the pinch. Some are asking districts for an unusual mid-year increase to cover fuel and maintenance costs. Others are considering closing their business completely.
For school districts, when an actual cost exceeds what was budgeted at the beginning of the year, another line item in the budget often has to decrease or disappear altogether. This could mean the loss of staff members, academic programs or transportation services.
Fuel will cost the 37,000 students in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin district $100,000 more than expected this year, Superintendent David Law said. The district’s $550 million annual operating budget can absorb this increase. But if high costs persist through the summer into next school year and beyond, that may be a different story, he said.
The district is in the middle of a five-year contract with its bus suppliers that includes some adjustments for fuel increases. But the current peaks are likely to exceed what is in the contract.
“Our condition is increasing [for the overall operating budget] this year is 2.5%,” Law said. “When part of our budget sees a 15% or 18% jump, that pushes a cut elsewhere.”
This kind of constraint makes it difficult to help educators who ask the district for more classroom support. Law recently shared with employees of one of the district’s elementary schools a presentation on the ins and outs of school funding. The teachers said that one of the things that would make their job easier would be to have a paraeducator in all 42 classrooms.
“Okay, that’s $600,000. We don’t have that extra budget, and you’re our smallest of 26 elementary schools,” Law told Education Week. said is that we could do it and no group of employees would get a raise.”
Food delivery costs rise amid soaring fuel prices
It’s not just student transportation that’s feeling the effects of rising fuel prices.
Eleven schools in Davenport, Iowa, receive two weekly deliveries of fresh fruits and vegetables through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant program. More than 4,500 students take advantage of these offers.
Over the past month, each delivery has come with an $8 fuel surcharge, said Coni Dobbels, food and nutrition services supervisor for the district.
The program has a fixed grant of $256,000 for the entire school year, and each school building is allocated a portion of these funds based on the number of students.
Thanks to the fuel surcharge, one district is already running out of funds to continue receiving its weekly fruit and vegetable deliveries, and other schools are heading for the same fate, Dobbels said.
Meanwhile, the district bread vendor recently told Dobbels that she could not continue to deliver in her district unless she paid 20% more to cover fuel cost increases.
“We spend about $60,000 on bread,” she said. “That’s almost $12,000 we would have to pay.”
Instead, she will have to find another supplier for next year or buy frozen bread from another supplier the district is already using.
Dobbels said she could ask the school board for additional funding to cover the increased costs, but she thinks the district will prefer to allocate more resources to the classroom. Instead, she anticipates having to increase the cost of student meals next year. With the loss of federal funding for universal free school mealsthis means more students are at risk of incurring school meal debt if they can’t afford the food.
Meanwhile, the fruit and vegetable program that introduces kids to healthy new foods between breakfast and lunch could shrink if the federal government doesn’t increase funding. That worries Dobbels, who grew up on a farm with tight margins and ate free school lunches as a child.
“Even if they had breakfast at 7:30 a.m., they might not have lunch until 11:30 a.m. or noon,” Dobbels said. “Children need it. Their growing bodies need a little boost.
Settle for the long term
Some districts are getting creative to deal with rising school bus operating costs.
In Lansing, Michigan, the district provided half a million dollars in gas cards families who choose not to send students to school on the bus. Richland County schools in South Carolina offered $500 bonuses to staff to help cover the higher cost of commuting.
Districts will have to adjust to these fuel prices for some time. Experts say diesel supply shortages will keep fuel prices high in the foreseeable future. Energy costs like heating and electricity could also face similar increases.