Area schools feel pinch of fuel increases

By Matthew J. Perry
As school administrators in the region prepare budgets for the coming year, unprecedented increases in fuel costs are pushing officials to concoct evermore creative solutions to meet projected expenses.
At present, schools in Roxbury, Margaretville and Andes appear to have absorbed roughly 50 percent increases in the price of heating oil and diesel fuel without accompanying cuts in scholastic programs. But, with prices continuing to climb, officials are concerned that projected costs might have to be revised upward later in the year.
“You take your best guesstimate, because historical precedent doesn’t mean a thing,” said Andes Superintendent John Bernhardt. “No one knows for sure how much higher the prices are going to go.”
All three schools operate through Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) to solicit bids from fuel vendors. While collective bargaining can help the schools to secure a competitive price for heating oil and diesel fuel, each school signs its own agreement with a vendor. Often a single vendor will supply a school with both its diesel fuel for busses and heating oil, but the arrangement can vary from year to year.
In the case of Andes Central School, bidding under the BOCES umbrella has not resolved the issue. No vendors accepted bids to deliver fuel to the school. ACS has small storage tanks, and fuel trucks are not allowed to pass over a bridge on school grounds to reach them. As a result, fuel companies, feeling the pinch of higher prices themselves, have been put off by the expense of delivering small loads over multiple trips.
“It doesn’t pay to make two delivery trips to Andes,” said Bernhardt. “This part of our budget is scary.” ACS is in the process of soliciting bids from vendors on its own.
By making cuts in the administrative budget, ACS hopes to cover much of the increases of the fuel costs. The money saved from these reductions could be used for internal improvements or to pad the school emergency fund—if fuel prices don’t require an emergency transfer.
Margaretville and Roxbury have secured their contracts with Mirabito for both heating oil and diesel needs. MCS is projecting a 53 percent increase in fuel for the 2008-09 school year, which constitutes 12.5 percent of the school’s budget increase. In Roxbury, heating fuel is estimated to cost $100,000 in the coming year, a $32,000 increase over last year’s projection. The cost of diesel fuel is projected at $66,000, up from $38,000.
As yet, the increases are not translating into unusual spikes in tax levies. Andes is projecting a .03 percent increase, while the MCS budget calls for an increase of 4.8 percent—but the schools are anticipating problems of other kinds.
“Rural education isn’t just what happens between four walls,” said Bernhardt. “We rely on the class trips, the outside experiences to help our kids see what possibilities exist. We’re going to have to become very prudent in the planning of these trips, and maybe we’ll have to collaborate with other schools. We have to bus kids to other schools for some of our programs. Many plans might have to be re-evaluated.”
Jean Menchen, school treasurer of Roxbury, is dealing with the pinch in another way. “I carpool with one of the teachers here,” she said. “We’re coordinating our schedules to cut down.”