Carpool. Walk. Consolidate trips. Stay home. Ride a bike. Buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle.
While some in the general public have options available to mitigate the financial strain of high gas prices, the school district cannot leave children home or put them on bicycles; its 109 diesel buses must run every school day to transport students — and a change in fuel efficiency is not yet on the horizon.
Rising gas prices forced Jessamine County Schools to spend $32,000 more on diesel fuel in the fall semester 2010 than in fall 2009, but the transportation system was ready to absorb the hit after the district budgeted nearly $100,000 more for diesel in the 2010-2011 school year than the previous year.
“We budget way ahead for fuel, because you never know how volatile the market might become,” Director of Transportation Chris Bellman said. “I know we’re spending a little more than we were last year — it’s not a tremendous amount of difference, but over the course of the year, it will be; it will be considerable.”
The district had spent $183,540 on diesel fuel from July 2009 to December 2009, according to Director of Finance Tim Lemaster; buses used $215,589 worth of diesel fuel during the same period in 2010.
While the schools can’t cut down much on the mileage driven by the buses, many districts across Kentucky have improved their gas costs by purchasing hybrid electric school buses that go much farther on a gallon of fuel than diesel-only buses.
The Hybrid Horsepower for Kentucky Schools program, funded by stimulus-act dollars, helped 22 Kentucky districts buy 34 hybrid electric buses last year, and 67 more buses are scheduled to be added in round two of the program. Jessamine County Schools did not apply for money from the program.
While Jessamine County will likely need to purchase 10 new buses next fall, Bellman said they would probably not be hybrid, citing concerns about the ability to maintain the alternative buses.
“I’m waiting for the hybrid market to stabilize before we get into it,” Bellman said. “There are a lot of issues right now with serviceability problems and things like that. It’s getting better; it’s entirely possible that 10 or 12 years from now, many or most buses on the road might be hybrids, but we’re not there yet.”
The school district has not purchased new buses since it bought 19 in fall 2008; Bellman said additional buses would be needed soon to replace aging models, including five 1998 buses that are in their 14th year on the road.
“Even though there’s not much building going on, our numbers are still increasing slightly, so I have dropped a hint to the superintendent and others that we will need to order a few buses next year, and I’m thinking about 10, probably,” Bellman said.
Bellman estimated the new buses would cost between $85,000 and $90,000 each and said hybrid buses can cost nearly twice as much as diesel buses.
Superintendent Lu Young shared Bellman’s concern about the infrastructure for supporting hybrid buses and said the district’s leadership team had considered adding one hybrid bus to test the water but decided against it.
“Really, because of the different expertise and tools and equipment that it takes to work on them, it would be almost more trouble to just bring on one than it would be to begin moving toward regular purchases of the alternative-engine buses,” Young said.
The cost of fuel and delivery
Through December, buses had used almost half of the $550,000 budgeted for diesel fuel in the 2010-2011 school year. Nearly $400,000 was spent in the 2008-2009 school year, and more than $450,000 was spent in 2009-2010. The district currently has $600,000 allocated for fuel in the 2011-2012 draft budget, which will be up for approval from the board of education at its January meeting.
Diesel fuel is contracted yearly through a sealed-bid process in which companies price their delivery costs; the fuel itself is sold at the current market price. This was a change a few years ago from the old system in which the diesel contract was bid every three months and the district locked in a fuel price for those three months.
Bellman said the change was made to bid only the delivery cost when the market become volatile.
“The market, at that point, was changing a lot, and that’s when prices reached their highest point, and we sent out a bid and refused it because the winning bid was way up around $4 a gallon,” he said. “We were pretty sure that prices were coming down at that point, so we refused that bid and went to bidding it by delivery cost, which is what most districts do anyway.”
The contract for the 2010-2011 school year was awarded in August to Key Oil in Lexington after it submitted a bid of .2408 cents per gallon, including taxes, for delivery.
The 2009-2010 school year contract for delivery went to Mansfield Oil from Gainsville, Ga., at .2075 cents per gallon.