How soaring fuel prices hurt kids

Across the nation, school districts are slashing spending on teachers, books and computers as filling up the school bus gets more expensive.

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By Steve Hargreaves, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The school buses in Dubuque County, Iowa, travel 4,900 miles each day ferrying kids to and from class. That's the equivalent of driving across the entire United States and halfway back again.

The price of the diesel these buses run on has jumped 35 percent over the last year. The extra money paid to fuel the buses must come out of the local school district's general fund - money it would prefer to spend on other things.

"It's computers, it's teachers, it's you name it," said Bob Hingtgen, director of transportation at Western Dubuque County Community School District, located 65 miles north of Iowa City. "The pie is only so big. If a bigger slice is going to transportation, it leaves a smaller slice for everything else."

Hingtgen said the district spent $50,000 more fueling its 80 buses this year than it did last year, or roughly what he said it would cost for the starting salaries of two teachers.

Districts hurt by high prices. Although the effect of the rising price of fuel on school funding hasn't gotten much attention from national school administration organizations, administrators working in school systems across the country are feeling the impact.

From teachers and books to bus routes and field trips, the soaring price of fuel is causing school districts across the country to cut back - especially in more rural areas where the tax base small and the distance to bus students is large.

About 90 miles west of Dubuque, administrators in Waterloo spent $70,000 more this year on diesel than they did last year.

Waterloo, with more than 10,000 students and 25 schools, is much larger than Dubuque. But even out of a budget of $100 million a year, $70,000 still hurts.

"When you're dealing with budgets that have been pared down to the thousands of dollars per building, it makes a big difference," said Michael Coughlin, director of administrative services at the Waterloo Community School District.

To cope, the district is freezing the budget for classroom supplies. That means no increase in workbooks and other materials, and updating things like textbooks and software will take a little longer than planned, said Coughlin.

In Northern California, some students in the Paradise Unified School District have to walk a little further to catch the bus, or catch a ride with their parents.

Paradise canceled three of its roughly 20 bus routes last year in response to high fuel costs, said Susan Stutznegger, the district's budget director.

"Even though we cut back, we still haven't been able to achieve any savings because [rising diesel prices] have eaten that up," she said.

So this year the district is axing three or four more routes, and not filling two vacancies for bus drivers.

Eventually, textbooks will have to be replaced and teachers hired. In many places the solution will likely be similar to the one in Helena, Mont.

The school district there has cut back on field trips, sports equipment, and other extra-curricular activities. But state law prohibits local districts from cutting educational funding, according to Superintendent Bruce Messinger.

"We have not altered service," said Messinger. "The increased costs are going to be passed on to local taxpayers." To top of page

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