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How governments, school systems are grappling with soaring fuel prices
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Hall County Schools buses fill up at pumps located at the transportation offices where most of the school system's buses are parked. - photo by Scott Rogers

People are feeling more pain at the pump since Russia invaded Ukraine a few weeks ago, but local governments and schools are reporting differing levels of pain tolerance in the face of soaring prices. 

Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley said the county is well situated to absorb the blow of higher fuel costs, thanks to high tax revenues and federal funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. 

Gainesville City spokeswoman Christina Santee said they are evaluating their policies on vehicle and fuel usage to help minimize costs, but she said they are confident they will stay within budget. 
“Because of our conservative budgeting and because of our staff’s ongoing attention to fuel usage, we’re confident we will still fall under budget for (fiscal year 2022), even with the current spikes,” she said.

Schools, on the other hand, are feeling the heat. 

“It is definitely causing some anxiety because, first off, we're three quarters of the way through the fiscal year,” said Clay Hobbs, transportation director for Hall County Schools. “And so when you have an unexpected increase like this, it disproportionately affects the remaining balance.” 

Jonathan Boykin, the school system finance officer, said the district has budgeted $2.18 million for fuel for the current fiscal year. 

“At the moment, it is hard to predict the anticipated amount for the upcoming year,” he said. “It will depend on the global situation.” 

They are working on next year’s budget, he added, and “inquiring with our fuel suppliers to determine what sort of prices we can expect for the upcoming year.” 

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Hall County Schools bus drivers Bert Carrion and Michelle Fradet stop by the Hall County Schools transportation fuel pumps Wednesday, March 16, 2022, to fill their buses with diesel. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hobbs said the price of diesel has risen from $2.96 to $4.12 since January, even with the federal tax break they receive on fuel, about 37 cents on the gallon. The price of propane has increased from $1.86 to $2.19 in the same time frame, he added. 

Most of the district’s buses are powered by diesel. The fleet includes 288 diesel buses, 80 propane buses, and 10 gas-powered buses. 

The average price of diesel in Georgia was $5.18 as of March 16, according to the American Automobile Association.

“I’ve been doing this since 2006, and I've never seen anything close to what we’re paying now,” Hobbs said. “This is by far the highest price the school system’s ever paid for fuel.” 

But it could be worse, he said. 

“It’s almost like the Lord looked after us this year because we used some federal funding for some fuel expenditures early in the year, and that allowed us to save some money in our local funding,” he said, praising the foresight of Superintendent Will Schofield. 

“It’s almost like he can see the future sometimes,” he said. 

In hindsight, though, he said he wished they had purchased futures contracts, which guarantee present fuel prices in anticipation of a rise in prices. 

“I’ve had I don’t know how many people ask me if we had bought futures … and the answer to that is no, because the conditions weren't right,” he said. “You can't plan for something like this. If we knew it was coming then we could have purchased futures and probably saved some money.” 

“We have not purchased additional futures,” Schofield said, “but we are monitoring them to potentially lock in lower prices.” 

Gainesville City Schools is also grimacing at the pump. 

“If you're putting 50 gallons in there at $5, can you imagine that with 52 buses?” said Tonya Harris-Jackson, transportation coordinator for Gainesville City Schools, adding that they usually don’t allow buses to get below half a tank of fuel. 

“We’re just trying to be as efficient as possible,” said Carisa Jones-Mayweather, transportation director for the school system. “We're looking at trying to reduce some of the routes,” as well as optimizing routes to avoid running a “90-passenger bus with 40 students.” 

She said she hasn’t received the February invoice yet, but she said it’s certainly the biggest increase she’s seen in her two and a half years at the department. 

“It’s shocking, and I know it’s going to have an effect on us in the long run, but at the moment we’re trying to do everything we can to prevent a disaster here in the city,” she said. “Once I receive February’s bill, I know it's going to be higher than the previous month. And as the war (in Ukraine) goes on, it is going to continue to grow.”