The price at the pump is driving up the price of operating schools. Madison County school leaders have added $130,000 to next year’s budget — bringing fuel expenditures to $472,000, a 30 percent increase over last year — to meet the rising cost of fuel.

“It’s definitely affecting the budget planning process,” Madison County Schools superintendent Dr. Mitch McGhee said.

County school leaders adjusted their spending plan in May, appropriating more money for fuel and decreasing the budget in other areas.

The Madison County Board of Education is slated to vote on next year’s budget on Monday.

Schools nation-wide are feeling the pinch of rising fuel costs since they operate mass transit systems, busing children to and from school each day.

McGhee said school systems pay a slightly lower cost for diesel than the general public, but it’s still not cheap.

And maintaining a bus system isn’t the lone fuel burden the system must bear.

For example, mileage that a teacher, administrator or staff worker drives for school business must be reimbursed.

“There’s a lot of hidden costs that can come back to bite us when it comes to fuel,” McGhee said.

Nation-wide, some schools systems have sought creative ways to cut fuel expenses. Some rural districts have even gone as far as switching for a four-day week to save them a day of burning fuel.

In Georgia, Richmond County (Augusta) school leaders have considered that option.

But McGhee doesn’t see four-day weeks becoming a fad nation-wide unless the fuel situation gets really dire.

“It’s such a cultural change,” McGhee said, noting that parents would still be working five days a week while kids would only be attending school for four.

The Madison County school system is exploring less drastic ways to save fuel.

For starters, field trips that didn’t meet a certain instructional value were axed.

“That cut-out a lot of the reward-type field trips … You can reward them at school,” McGhee said.

Transportation directors are also driving the county, seeking to find more efficient bus routes to save the system on diesel. McGhee noted the irony of burning that gas for that purpose, but said finding ways to shortening routes, even if just minimally, could entail big savings since buses run twice a day, 180 days per year.

“A mile here and a mile there can really save you a lot,” McGhee said.

School leaders also had to slash a budget request that would have allowed bus drivers to drive their buses home — partially due to the increased amount of fuel that would require, according to assistant superintendent Bonnie Knight.

McGhee said the schools’ biggest challenge — a lack of adequate funding, he says — makes meeting the challenge of rising fuel costs all the more difficult.

“It wouldn’t be such a big deal if the state funded their funding equation,” McGhee said.

So until prices at pump come down, many of those routine school miles — athletic road trips, teacher training — won’t seem so routine.

“Many things that you took for granted, you really can’t take for granted,” McGhee said.

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