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School bus routes may soon be cut or combined as the cost to refuel buses spikes

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

On school days around the U.S., 26 million students ride buses to and from campus. School districts and private bus companies are now facing rising gas prices. In the last few weeks, the cost per gallon hit a record high. As New England Public Media's Jill Kaufman reports, the high prices are hurting budgets.

JILL KAUFMAN, BYLINE: McCarthy's bus company has a fleet of 150 of those well-known yellow school buses. In a single day, they cover more than a thousand miles around the mostly rural parts of central and western Massachusetts.

JOHN MCCARTHY: It's all hands on deck from time to time.

KAUFMAN: John McCarthy's father launched this operation in the 1950s with just a couple of buses, and it remains a relatively small family business.

MCCARTHY: My sister drives for me. My mother-in-law drives for me. My wife does the payroll. My ex-wife drives for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS BEEPING)

KAUFMAN: And daily, someone is at the pump.

MCCARTHY: And we actually have a person that that's literally all they do - is fuel buses.

KAUFMAN: On average, McCarthy's buses get seven miles to the gallon. The cost of that diesel rose 40% in the last few weeks. And now it's contract bidding season, and McCarthy has proposals to write. He forecasts labor and fuel costs three years out. It could be worse. The fuel wholesaler could be locking in today's price.

MCCARTHY: It's a little bit of a gamble because you can buy 100,000 gallons at the wrong price and then, you know, that's it.

KAUFMAN: Michael Martin says about 500,000 school buses are on the road daily during the school year. Martin is the executive director of the National Association of Pupil Transportation.

MICHAEL MARTIN: This price increase probably couldn't have come at a worse time.

KAUFMAN: In the spring, schools have far more field trips and sporting events. About a quarter of American school districts outsource their transportation needs to private bus companies, and the rest own their own buses, and they have to maintain and fill them with fuel.

MARTIN: We're kind of talking in many respects about two completely different approaches to fuel purchasing and/or operational implementation.

KAUFMAN: State to state, it's a patchwork of different taxes and surcharges.

DREW DAMIEN: I'm in touch with districts all across the state from Cape Cod up to Pittsfield.

KAUFMAN: Drew Damien is president of the Massachusetts Association of Pupil Transportation, and he also runs the buses in the Palmer School District. His bus company contract has a typical clause that, when fuel prices go up or down, the district will pay more or get a refund. On the day we spoke, Damien had just received an invoice with his fuel adjustment costs from last month - another thousand dollars, Damien says, about $100 more per bus per month.

DAMIEN: And I'm sure that that's the smallest one I'm going to see in the next couple of months anyway.

KAUFMAN: The school buses of the future may be electric, and some districts do have a few, but the majority of buses...

DAMIEN: They are definitely not fuel-efficient. I mean, amongst everything else, they are as aerodynamic as a filing cabinet.

KAUFMAN: School districts always budget for a bit of price volatility, Damien says. But to save money, some bus routes may have to be cut or combined. He says transportation officials are going to have to be very creative like they have been during the pandemic. For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC'S "MI CHOCOLATINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jill has been reporting, producing features and commentaries, and hosting shows at NEPR since 2005. Before that she spent almost 10 years at WBUR in Boston, five of them producing PRI’s “The Connection” with Christopher Lydon. In the months leading up to the 2000 primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show, and subsequently hosted NPR’s All Things Considered during the South Carolina Primary weekend. Right before coming to NEPR, Jill was an editor at PRI's The World, working with station based reporters on the international stories in their own domestic backyards. Getting people to tell her their stories, she says, never gets old.