Siphoning gas from out-of-commission school buses is one way to make every penny count.
Knowing the district's $600,000 fuel budget wouldn't be enough last year, Modesto City Schools transportation supervisor Alice Quayle and her staff turned to buses sitting in the shop and moved gas from their tanks to those of buses being used. They still were over budget by $75,000, which was made up from the district's general fund. And she expects no relief this school year.
"We were able to siphon about 500 gallons from downed buses," she said. That's enough to fill five school buses.
Although she budgeted $600,000 again this year, she said she thinks the final tally will be $1 million to transport 8,000 of the district's 32,000 students. Schools are not required to provide transportation to campuses, but officials said many low-income students would not go to school without buses.
Hard economic times and increased gas prices will create a challenging budget year for school districts and families.
The high cost of diesel for buses is straining district finances, while the struggling economy has led to classroom cutbacks and higher school food prices.
Districts in Washington state, Idaho, Maryland and elsewhere are consolidating bus stops, canceling field trips and forcing students to walk farther to school.
Although other districts across the state and nation are cutting bus routes, charging families for bus rides or eliminating buses for students who live
within five miles of school, most Stanislaus County districts aren't.
Officials at Ceres, Turlock and Modesto districts said they aren't charging students and doubt they will in the future. Empire Union has cut a part-time bus driver. Ceres schools will start full-day kindergarten this fall. Having kindergartners at school all day instead of a half-day decreases the number of bus routes in the afternoon, said Ken Hines, Ceres Unified director of transportation.
"I think we'll see $5-a-gallon gas next year," he said. "There's not a whole lot more we can do. We're pretty streamlined."
Ceres schools spent $150,000 on diesel last year, up from $70,000 in 2000, Hines said.
When gas goes over budget, money usually comes out of the district's general fund, eroding money used for salaries, classrooms, programs and services in a year seeing deep education funding cuts from the state.
At the same time, costs for air conditioning and heating, cafeteria food and classroom supplies are mounting because of the shaky economy. Across the state and nation, students are getting some unusual back-to-school supply requests from their teachers and schools.
Teachers once asked for hand sanitizer and tissue; now they want copy paper. Lenelle Cruse, the state Parent-Teacher Association president in Florida, said last year's budget was so tight, a Jacksonville school had a toilet paper drive.
As fuel prices have rocketed higher, the cost of food has zoomed, especially for lunch-tray staples such as milk. As a result, most schools will charge more for lunch, the School Nutrition Association said.
Modesto City Schools hasn't raised prices above last year's: $2 for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and $2.50 for those in seventh through high school. After a price hike last year, the Turlock Unified School District is keeping lunch prices steady, although food services director Scott Soiseth said he will evaluate costs midyear. "We're hoping to hold the line," he said.
Nationwide, at least 14 districts are switching to four-day weeks, and dozens more are considering it, according to a recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators.
Locally, districts have spent conservatively and hope to ride out the cuts and slow economy. Next school year's cuts will probably be more draconian than this year's, valley educators said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339.