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Avery County Schools Having Intermediate Effects From Recent Fuel Price Surges

By Tim Gardner

The recent surge in fuel prices is hurting school transportation budgets, raising concerns that if they keep increasing, some school districts could use up their allocated funding for buses making regular runs picking up students to take them to school and then back home, as well as buses designated for extracurricular activities such as taking students on field trips and athletic teams to their games, meets and matches not held at their schools in the county. 

Fortunately, the Avery County Public School System is not experiencing major problems regarding fuel for its buses, according to Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman.

“We have been lucky in our school system concerning bus fuel as we still have ample funding that should get us through the remainder of the 2021-22 school year,” he said.  “Myself, our Transportation Director Brian King, our Board of Education members and other school officials are monitoring fuel costs very closely, and we know that if they keep increasing consistently it can, and likely will, make it hard on our school system. We would then make any needed measures at the time to pay for our needed fuel.” 

“Fortunately, fuel prices have decreased slightly the last few days and hopefully, they will keep coming back down. Brian has done a splendid job of working to combat what problems we have had due to fuel cost increases, so as a result they’ve not hurt us badly so far.”

King said he will “move money around in the school’s transportation budget received from the State of North Carlina to absorb fuel costs for the county’s school buses” if, and when, needed.

School buses don’t fill up at the local gas station, so, school systems aren’t paying the same price for gas as consumers. All buses operated by the Avery County Schools system run on diesel fuel. Still, school districts such as Avery’s are facing major price fluctuations and rapidly rising fuel costs on fixed budgets. 

“I think some districts are feeling it immediately,” said Kevin Harrison, section chief for transportation services for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Many school districts buy fuel from state-contracted vendors at a rate that has been changing weekly. But King noted that the Avery School System has not negotiated a longer-term fixed price than other school districts that buy fuel weekly or daily and, instead, relies on the state’s road tax monies to provide the needed fuel to operate its school buses. 

How much — or how quickly — schools are affected by the recent surge in diesel prices depends on how frequently they purchase fuel and how much they have stored. School districts typically buy fuel by the tanker-load to operate their own fueling stations. 

King said that Avery County Schools has a diesel fuel storage tank that has a holding capacity of 12,000 gallons and that the system receives a load of 7,400 gallons of diesel at least every two weeks. He added that the storage tank has to be down to between 2,800 to 3,000 gallons in stock before it can sufficiently hold another load.

Avery County Schools use between 800 to 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel every three school days for buses to transport students on the 2,022.5 miles of normal school bus routes (to and from schools) if every student rides who is assigned to a bus route, King said.

Sports teams representing schools in the county travel many thousands of miles in each school year to compete at away games, meets and matches as do students on field trips. County school activity buses take them to such events, which adds to the fuel costs.

He also shared that more Avery County school students are riding buses since fuel prices increased and that he had his bus drivers cut idle time a long time ago to keep buses from burning fuel in another effort to save fuel.

Fuel prices rise and fall due to several factors, not presidential policies: The price of crude oil, which is largely set by global markets; supply and demand; refining; distributing and marketing; and local state and federal taxes.

U.S. President Joe Biden said current high fuel prices are happening because OPEC and Russia aren’t increasing production sufficiently. 

Corporate greed is also considered a contributing factor to the recent high fuel prices, according to expert analysts.  Many fuel companies have reportedly made record profits recently, but their gas and diesel prices have still increased, instead of dropped.

Additionally, fuel prices almost always increase when there’s a war involving an oil-producing country.

The U.S. imported about 209,000 barrels per day of crude oil in 2021, according to the White House.  While Russia supplies the United States with only 3 percent of the import market in the United States, it plays a big role because it produces heavier, sour crude, experts maintain.  They also claim that Russian crude is needed because U.S. refineries are not designed to use 100 percent of the light, sweet crude it produces. 

Drivers are getting some relief with the price of crude oil falling below $100 a barrel on March 15, down from $123 after Russia recently invaded Ukraine. Prices at the pump fell by two pennies to a national average of $4.31 a gallon this week, according to AAA Motor Club.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction distributes funds to schools for fuel based on a rate of $2.30 per gallon, and schools’ overall transportation budgets are based on expenditures from the prior year.

To show the colossal volume in which fuel costs have recently spiked In February and March, King said Avery County Schools paid an average of $2.10 per gallon for fuel in the 2018-19 school year and $4.62 per gallon as of March 9, 2022.  That’s more than double the price in three school years, which typically run from mid-August until the end of May the following year.

King also told that the most recent diesel fuel bill for Avery County Schools was $34,500, which was approximately $11,000.00 to $12,000.00 higher than the previous one. He analyzed how the fuel price increases have negatively impacted Avery County Schools finances as being “not major or minimal, but intermediate.”

Although it’s very difficult to do in a rural school system such as Avery County’s, cutting fuel costs is still one of the most painless ways of satisfying the harsh budget demands facing many school districts nowadays. No cutbacks in staff or service are usually necessary. And rarely does it require significant capital investment. State energy offices also sometimes provide grant money to help school districts acquire alternative-fuel school buses.

There’s also speculation that some school systems could resort to using electric buses in the future if fuel prices don’t decrease more and increase at a consistent level in the future.  But King declared that is “absolutely not an option for Avery County Schools as they could not be afforded.”  He said the international average cost to buy just one electric-operated bus is $293,454.00 and an electric charger costs an average of $32,475.00.  He added that the average cost to buy a diesel-operated bus is $99,108.00.

King also noted that some vehicles operated by Avery’s School System use gasoline instead of diesel and that is usually takes only one fill-up of the gasoline tank the system owns to run those vehicles for a whole school year.

Harrison said the Department of Public Instruction had taken steps in the past when fuel prices had far outpaced transportation allotments due weather catastrophes and pipeline disruptions.

“These prices could go away, and we look much better,” Harrison said. “But if it doesn’t, then it’s already hitting [schools] in their budgets strongly, and we’re going look to try and help them out with some of that.”

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction can shift unspent dollars in the state public schools fund to school districts to help buy fuel. If that’s not sufficient, Harrison added that state education officials could request more funding from the N.C. General Assembly to keep buses running.