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Schools keep eye on gas gauge

POSTED: October 3, 2008 5:01 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Jennifer Houghland, a bus driver with Hall County, fills up the tank of a school bus at the Hall County schools transportation department Monday. Each school bus gets, on average, 6 to 7 miles per gallon.

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Field trips planned for the next two weeks have been canceled for Hall County schools to conserve fuel.

Because of gas shortages in the area, school officials said they are taking temporary measures to reduce school bus trips until local providers can restock the school system’s diesel fuel supply.

Gainesville school officials said they have not yet resorted to cutting field trips, but they are keeping a close eye on the system’s gas supply as more than 100 additional students have opted to ride city school buses in the past two weeks.

Jewel Armour, transportation director for Hall County schools, said the system has about four to five days of diesel fuel stored in five tanks across the county. Armour said sources from the system’s Gainesville-based diesel fuel provider D-Jay Petroleum said they expect to deliver gas to the school system Wednesday if more fuel begins to flow through gas pipelines as expected.

"It’s not certain we’ll get fuel this week," Armour said. "We’re temporarily suspending our field trips. ... We want to keep school open as long as we can."

Armour estimates about 22,000 out of the system’s roughly 26,000 students regularly depend on Hall County school buses for transportation to school. He said the system’s fleet of 214 buses uses about 17,000 gallons of diesel fuel a week.

The system already has implemented measures to reduce bus trips needed for after-school and sporting events. In addition to reducing field trips and employee travel, the county school system also has suspended grass cutting except on varsity competition fields, according to an e-mail distributed by Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield.

Canceled field trips include elementary school students’ visits to Jaemor Farm Market, Elachee Nature Science Center and to see plays at Brenau University. Armour said the majority of trips likely will be rescheduled once the gas shortage subsides. Academic and sports competition trips have not been canceled at this point. He said the field-trip freeze will last for the next two weeks, and school officials will re-evaluate the fuel supply situation at that time.

Although demand for regular fuel is higher than the demand for diesel, the hurricane aftermath has slowed the delivery of all fuel supplies to local consumers.

Randy Bly, AAA Auto Club South spokesman, said 75 percent to 80 percent of motorists drive cars that use regular fuel, but many school and government vehicles require diesel fuel. He said in the Southeast, Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta have been hardest hit by the fuel shortage.

Bly said the U.S. Department of Energy reports that the gas supply should return to normal by Oct. 13, but he expects the supply to be back to normal before then.

"I think you’ll see an improvement in metro-Atlanta throughout this week," he said.

Armour said until then, the school system will take what it can get.

"It may be that we have to do some split loads (of fuel)," Armour said. "But (our providers) have assured us that they will try to keep us going. Even if we can’t get a full load, they’re going to get us partial loads."

Merrianne Dyer, interim superintendent for Gainesville schools, said the school system has a three-week supply of diesel gas for its buses. She said the system is not taking further action to conserve fuel at this point and expects more school bus fuel to be delivered in two weeks.

"We are on a fairly strict plan as it is," Dyer said. "We’ve been sending teams in groups, doubling up trips for athletes and scheduling events at the same locations."

She said the Gainesville school board has budgeted one field trip per grade level this year, and most of those trips are not scheduled for the fall. Three of four elementary schools slated to attend an upcoming Brenau University play have opted to walk the short distance to the university venue while one school’s parent association made the decision to pay for buses for the field trip.

Dyer said the school system’s top priority for fuel is using it to get students to and from school. Extracurricular activities and after-school programs are the next priority followed by field trips.

Jerry Castleberry, transportation director for the Gainesville school system, said an increase in bus ridership has coincided with rising fuel costs and shortages. Half of the 6,000 student school system currently rides buses to school, he said.

"It’s really grown. It’s really fluid," he said. "The one way we can really tell something is going on is by the traffic at the middle school in the afternoon. It’s not as bad as it used to be."

Castleberry said most of the new ridership comes from the Atlanta Highway area, with about 59 new riders. Bus rider growth also is coming from the Athens Highway and Thompson Bridge Road areas.

With 40 city school buses running daily, Castleberry said the system has seven spare buses to accommodate new riders.

Armour said the county school system has not had significant growth in bus ridership — yet.

"Especially if fuel is not available, we expect ridership to increase," he said. "We’ll make adjustments if we have to."



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