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Hall County schools will spend $1 million extra to fuel buses this year
Ed Hilton, assistant shop foreman at the Hall County school bus shop, works on one of the county’s 200 buses. The fleet will roll in August with fuel prices nearly $2-a-gallon higher than a year ago. - photo by Harris Blackwood

In a typical year, the Hall County school district will use 575,000 gallons of diesel fuel for school buses to get students to and from school, as well as to athletic events and field trips.

In July 2007, a 7,500 gallon tanker load of diesel cost $17,625, plus delivery charges. Earlier this month, the same tanker load cost $30,675, plus delivery. For a year’s worth of fuel, that’s $1 million more, or about $2.35 million a year.

School officials are hoping that it won’t go higher.

Jewel Armour oversees the county school’s fleet of 200 buses. Each bus runs an average route of 25 miles per day at 6 to 8 miles per gallon.

There is diesel fuel in the tanks at the five locations where the county has pumps for filling up the buses.

At his computer, Armour can watch the market price for fuel. Unlike retail users, the school system does not pay sales or road taxes for the fuel, only a fuel cost from a wholesale distributor.

"We’re filling up as needed," Armour said.

Some of the county’s buses were running during the early part of the summer to take students to summer school. The county has not bought fuel since July 9, when it paid $4.09 per gallon.

Before the classes start in August, Armour will hold a meeting with all of his drivers to reinforce fuel saving measures, such as avoiding fast starts and stops and not idling buses.

In addition, the school system is implementing measures to deter theft of fuel. Many of the buses already have locking fuel lids to prevent access to the tank. Those that do not are being retrofitted with locks.

The department also is starting a new electronic monitoring control that will tell school officials who is getting fuel and which bus it is going into.

Looking for ways to conserve is now an important part of Armour’s job. The system is encouraging fewer trips for sporting events.

"In years past, we might have sent a separate bus for a boys and girls team and another bus for cheerleaders," Armour said. "Now, we’re trying to combine that into one bus, where possible."

The school system also is trying to consolidate some field trips.

For example, if Distributed Education Clubs of America clubs at multiple high schools are going to the same conference, there is an effort to combine the groups from two or more schools."We’re encouraging them to stay in the same hotel and plan similar schedules," Armour said.

Among the ideas on the drawing board is opting for buses that operate on liquefied propane gas. Armour said the buses actually get lower gas mileage, but the price is about half the cost of diesel.

A federal report in 2004 showed that alternative fuel school buses represented only 2,700 of the more than 460,000 school buses in the U.S.

Armour said that there has been more talk about alternative fuel buses and the prospects of federal assistance in paying for the fuel.