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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

High gas prices mean schools are paying more to refuel buses

NCDOT Communications

School transportation coordinators say the recent surge in fuel prices is making it more expensive to buy diesel to power buses, and that's pinching school budgets.

The recent surge in gas prices is hitting school transportation budgets hard, raising concerns that if fuel prices keep up, some school districts could burn through their funding for buses.

Yellow school buses don't fill up at the local gas station, and they run on diesel fuel, so they aren't paying the same price for gas as consumers.

Still, school districts are facing major price fluctuations and rapidly rising fuel costs on a fixed budget. Spokespeople from school districts in Chatham, Guilford, and Vance counties said their transportation officials are monitoring gas prices closely.

"I think some districts will feel it immediately," said Kevin Harrison, section chief for transportation services for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

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.

Harrison said Wake County Schools uses 2.3 million gallons of fuel a year and has leveraged its buying power to negotiate a longer term fixed price than other school districts that buy fuel weekly or daily.

Most other districts buy gas from state-contracted vendors at a rate that has been changing weekly.

Chatham County Schools’ fueling station receives a tanker load of 8,000 gallons of diesel a week. Spokeswoman Nancy Wykle said their most recent invoice is for $3.07 per gallon.

DPI 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.

In February, Chatham County Schools’ paid an average of $2.56 per gallon for fuel, Wykle said. In February 2021, their average fuel cost was $1.55 per gallon.

“This represents a 65% increase in fuel costs with little to no increase in funding,” Wykle said.

“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 gonna look to try and help them out with some of that.”

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

DPI can shift unspent dollars in the state public schools fund to school districts to help buy fuel. If that's not sufficient, Harrison said state education officials could request more funding from the General Assembly to keep buses running through the second year of the biennial state budget.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.