David Fricke knows the soaring price of fuel has been frustrating for all island drivers this year.
“The fuel has gone sky high as everyone knows,” he said.
But Fricke may be more acutely aware then most.
He spends his day driving 40-foot-long, 15-ton, yellow school bus that guzzles a taxpayer-purchased gallon of diesel every five miles it travels.
Bainbridge Island School District has a fleet of 28 buses, and not even its four short buses get much better than six miles to the gallon. With the price of a gallon of wholesale diesel soaring over $4.50 this spring, the district’s fuel bill is expected to exceed its budget by $25,000 this year.
By law, the state is supposed to fund 100 percent of pupil transportation costs or “as close thereto as reasonably possible.” But state funding is set at the beginning of the school year and Bainbridge is usually compensated for about 55 to 60 percent of transportation costs.
Insufficient funding is normal, district Transportation Supervisor Glen Tyrrell said.
“The difference is that operating costs are so much higher this year than they have been,” he said. “In September we thought that $3 a gallon would be the end of the world. Now I’m praying for $4 a gallon.”
State allocations for transportation are based on a formula so complex that Tyrrell said it takes district staff weeks to compile the necessary data. In general the formula determines its allocation based on the number of students transported and their distance from their school.
Fricke, a 10-year bus driver and co-chair of the Bainbridge Educational Support Association, said one long-standing frustration is that the state determines mileage by measuring a straight line between the school and the bus stop, rather than following the route the bus actually takes to deliver the child.
“If you live on the island, you know roads don’t go in straight lines like they would in Seattle,” Fricke said as he waited for his bus’ engine to warm up at the district lot off New Brooklyn Road one morning last week.
His point was illustrated as his bus rumbled along its route for Sakai Intermediate School. It rolled up State Route 305, then hooked a left, scooping up students along Koura Road before turning north onto narrow Olympic Terrace Drive.
Near the end of Olympic he picked up a handful of students before heading south again. It is a 3.3-mile journey to pick up students two miles away from the school.
A more dramatic example is the run that carries 14 students from Bainbridge High School to classes at a vocational school in Bremerton. The straight, “as-the-crow-flies” distance between the schools is nine miles. But in reality, the bus must drive across Agate Pass to Poulsbo and 15 miles down Highway 3 for a one-way trip of 28 miles.
Based on its formula, the state allocated $2,867 for the route, but it costs $7,238 in fuel.
Making things more difficult for the district, the state provides no funds for students in the sixth grade and above whose stops are within a mile of their school.
The policy makes a big difference in a district with schools spread over only 28 square miles, Tyrrell said.
“We’ll never achieve 100 percent funding, just by the way our schools are set up,” he said.
The price of oil has had an impact on the department’s operating budget beyond just filling bus fuel tanks.
Basic maintenance and the cost for parts have gone up, Tyrrell said. A year ago it cost about $100 to fix a torn bus seat, but with the escalating price of petroleum-based products like foam and vinyl, the same repair is about $200 today — making it cheaper to buy a slip cover than fix a torn seat.
“Everything we do costs more money,” Tyrrell said.
With the district’s general budget being trimmed to meet a $1.5 million shortfall for 2008-2009, the transportation department has been told to cut back its costs.
The department will likely trim 9.5 hours from drive times, but is not anticipating any driver layoffs. It also plans to consolidate routes to increase the number of students on each bus and decrease the number of stops made by buses.
The change will mean more time spent on buses by students. The district is targeting 30 minutes as an average route time, but some will take up to 45 minutes.
The changes will save the district about $75,000.
Drivers asked permission to implement one cost-saving technique already this school year. Residents may notice buses sitting idle in their neighborhood during the school day. That’s because drivers choosing to not return to the district’s central bus barn during 10- to 15-minute waits between routes, a measure that can save a gallon of fuel on some runs.
One area the district hopes to improve is morning bus ridership.
The state only accepts morning student counts to plug into its allocation formula. The counts are conducted over a two-week period in the fall, and the district is not allowed to promote ridership during the counts.
On Bainbridge, 20 percent more students ride the bus home from school than to school in the morning, but those afternoon students don’t count in the state’s funding scheme.
For many parents it’s convenient to drop their children at school on their way to work or the ferry.
But all those extra cars shuttling students to school create another problem, one that Fricke pointed out as he pulled his bus into the Sakai Intermediate School lot last week.
“Some days are good, some days are bad, but here’s where the fun begins,” he said.
As Fricke’s bus idled in front of the school, waiting students catching his connecting shuttle run to Ordway Elementary, traffic slowed to a crawl on Sportsman Club Road and cars inched through the Sakai roundabout two abreast to deposit students.
The morning slows down bus traffic, and Fricke believes the congested lots are dangerous for students. Next school year he hopes to see more students waiting for his morning bus, for safety sake, and to help the transportation department secure more badly needed state dollars.
“The most important thing I can stress to parents is to use the bus. Get your kid on the bus,” Fricke said. “They don’t have to put their kid on the bus, but we’d sure like to see them on the bus.”