Field trips and preseason athletic games may be things of the past for students in Utah's smaller and more rural school districts. Increasing fuel prices are making it difficult for these districts to keep school buses running, so unnecessary trips will be first on the cutting block.
Statewide, the additional cost to districts is estimated to be over $2 million, said Murrell Martin, pupil transportation specialist for the Utah State Office of Education. Combine that with increased labor costs, increased student load and the rising price of new school buses, and districts are facing over $5 million total in increased transportation costs next school year.
The Legislature is supposed to fund most of the transportation costs, but at best it can only reimburse 85 percent of what the district spent the year before. That means the districts have to fund this year's increased costs on their own.
Kelly Orton, director of support services for the Salt Lake City School District, said the state funding is only amounting to about 70 percent of his costs, and for some districts it's only about 60 percent.
Box Elder School District, which probably handles the most extensive busing, is looking at changing routes to save fuel, said transportation director Jean Cannon. Final decisions will be made later in the summer. They don't have much room to maneuver, however, because state mandates determine how many students get bused.
"We haven't come up with a real good solution yet, but we still need to get kids where they need to be," she said.
Kane School District business administrator Cary Reese said he's planning major cutbacks.
"It's horrible; we're way over budget in our transportation costs," he said. "Financially, its just terrible."
Kane is working with other districts, especially Millard, to negotiate a decrease in the number of region games high school athletes will play next year. He's hoping the Utah High School Activities Association will decrease the number statewide to make it more equitable.
Evan Excell, executive director of the association, said it's not on the agenda for next Tuesday's board meeting, but they've received so many calls from 1A and 2A schools that it will definitely be addressed at the meeting.
Besides field trips and sporting events, Kane will also have to eliminate "incentive trips" that reward students for meeting goals.
Each district in the state has the option of raising taxes to meet its needs, but an option isn't the same as a solution.
The Kane County government had a 100 percent tax increase last year and is anticipating a 60 percent increase this year. Raising local transportation taxes would not be a welcome move, especially among families with fixed incomes.
"We're trying to avoid that at all costs," Reese said.
Some districts are even considering a lawsuit against the state because it requires busing but is not fully funding the service, he said.
Morgan School District is lucky in that it's geographically small, said business administrator D'Lynn Poll, but even with that, her monthly fuel bills have nearly doubled. That money has to come out of the general pool that funds teacher salaries and all other costs. Poll said her district is also looking at decreasing the number of athletic events and eliminating field trips. An additional problem for her is the growth of the county, which requires additional buses.Wayne County is seeing decreases in its enrollment, but because it's so rural, reaching all its students is a real challenge. Kathy Woolsey, district transportation director, said the district has resorted to paying parents to drive the children themselves.