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Rising fuel prices strain school system budgets

By Joyce Bailey The Macon Telegraph March 17, 2000

These days, it takes a lot of cheddar to roll what some students call the "Big Cheese." Translation: Increases in fuel prices are making it more costly to run school buses.

George Eubanks stresses out at the thought of the Houston County school system's cost to send 1,700 eighth-graders on school buses to a teen health forum Thursday at the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter.

"I don't even want to know," said Eubanks, the school system's assistant superintendent for business and operations. "Obviously, we're spending money at a much faster rate than we expected for fuel."

About $195,000 of Houston County's $270,000 transportation budget has been spent on fuel, with four months left in the fiscal year.

"I certainly never anticipated seeing prices like this when we were doing the budget," Eubanks said.

Woody Marshall/The Macon Telegraph Bibb County bus driver James Mays fuels up the bus he drives at the bus garage.

Diesel fuel prices have increased by 46 percent since August. At that time, school officials bought gas for 72 cents a gallon. Now they're paying $1.056 a gallon to transport 13,000 students back and forth to school every day, Eubanks said.

Like the number crunchers for school systems around the midstate, Eubanks is not alone. In what analysts are calling a worldwide shortage of crude oil, prices for fuel have increased by 12 cents a gallon during the past two weeks alone.

While midstate school systems bid on fuel and buy it in bulk at discounted prices, school officials say they're still feeling the pinch at the pumps.

Eubanks and his peers are monitoring world news reports in hopes fuel prices will stabilize before they have to make choices out of desperation about fuel use. If prices continue to rise, some school systems may decide to either dip into reserve funds or deny students the opportunity to take field trips, which peak this time of year.

"This is the busiest time of year," said Billy J. Pack, superintendent of schools in Peach County. "We've got spring sports and field trips, and all of that just requires more fuel."

The school system has used up $53,000 of its $65,000 fuel budget for the current school year, he said.

Pack noted school systems will get a temporary reprieve during the summer, but he is fearful about where prices will be when school starts again.

"All this extra cost is just adding to the amount of local dollars that has to be provided to supply transportation, because the state doesn't pay transportation costs," Pack said.

In Bibb County, diesel prices have risen more than 54 cents a gallon during the past year, reaching their highest level in 12 years, according to Larry King, the school system's director of purchasing and warehousing.

The increase has not broken the fuel budget, which covers transportation for 18,000 students every day. Since August, the Bibb County system has purchased 261,907 gallons of fuel for $192,840.

But the price increases have created nightmares as school officials put budget proposals together for 2000-2001.

"You can't plan for these kind of increases," said Jack Brock, director of facilities and transportation for Baldwin County schools. "In the past, we've always depended on our fuel budget to get us through any other trouble we had. If we had any money left over at the end of the (fiscal) year, we could buy tires."

Jones County schools Superintendent Bill Mathews said he planned the school system's current budget for a worst-case scenario, and he got it.

"As of now, we're OK," Mathews said. "(The shortage) just takes away some of our wiggle room."

To contact Joyce Bailey, call 953-6630 or e-mail

-- (, March 17, 2000

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