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High prices fueling concern

Shenandoah County school buses
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Shenandoah County school buses travel to Strasburg High School along a section of South Holliday Street on Wednesday. Rich Cooley/Daily

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A pair of youngsters walk to their buses
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A pair of youngsters walk to their buses outside Strasburg High School Wednesday afternoon after the school day. Rich Cooley/Daily

Area schools weigh cost of transportation

By M.K. Luther -- mkluther@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- Area public school systems are taking precautions now to avoid feeling the pinch at the pump as fuel prices keep climbing.

Many school transportation departments now must strike a delicate balance -- reducing fuel costs without affecting the quality of service and the ability to provide safe and reliable transportation.

Martin Quigley, transportation supervisor with Shenandoah County Public Schools, said the system regularly monitors school bus routes and fuel costs.

Projections are calculated in advance so the school system has an estimate of what to expect, but, like the average consumer, the administrators are relying on predictions as they prepare their fuel budgets.

"We are all focused on that fuel price and where it could go," Quigley said. "It is kind of a moving target right now."

Currently, the transportation department is asking the Shenandoah County School Board for another $75,000 for the 2012 budget to help offset the anticipated rise in fuel prices, Quigley said.

The school system has a fleet of 110 diesel-fueled buses, 85 of which run daily routes, Quigley said. The transportation department also maintains seven vans for special-needs pupils transportation, as well as six general-use vehicles that require unleaded gasoline.

The school system also chose to buy its own fuel instead of contracting with a supplier, Quigley said. The buses and school vehicles now fuel up individually at stations, reducing overhead costs and eliminating pump maintenance issues. Quigley said the decision to switch from a contract distributor to self-fueling has saved both time and money.

"We have done some innovative things we are really proud of," Quigley said.

Warren County had already set aside additional funds for the transportation budget.

Following widespread predictions of gas eventually climbing to above $4 a gallon, Director of Finance Robert Ballentine increased the additional amount to a $55,000 increase for 2012.

Warren County Public Schools Director of Transportation Aaron Mitchell said the school system always monitors the bus routes to maximize efficiency. Drivers are making certain buses are running at full capacity and limiting mileage when possible.

"We operate on a fixed budget," Mitchell said. "So we try to be as conscious as we can of routes."

Frederick County Public Schools keeps a 200-bus fleet and purchases an estimated 365,000 gallons of fuel a year, said Lisa Frye, executive director of finance.

Frye said the school system is adding about $91,000 to the 2012 transportation budget. The 2011 fuel budget was a little less than $1.2 million, including diesel and unleaded fuel costs.

Frye said the school system always tracks and evaluates transportation systems for cost-savings measure, regardless of potential fuel increases. Frye said fuel prices have been a known variable over the years during the budget process, and administrators are prepared to make adjustments.

"It has gone in both directions," Frye said.

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