A 10-year-old boy works at a window latch on Amtran bus 16P. Once he finally finds the right combination of pushing and pulling to slide the window open, he sits back and sighs, enjoying the cool breeze on his ride home from school.
He is one of about 30 Altoona Central Catholic junior high students riding the bus home on a school day afternoon this year.
He said he likes the yellow bus he rode last year because two could fit in a seat, but he likes the Amtran bus because he can listen to music, do homework and eat candy.
(Mirror file photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
Altoona Area Junior High School students board buses on Seventh Avenue. Districts across the region are making changes to combat the cost of fuel prices including using Amtran to reduce the number of routes.
Parents don't see the switch as such a sweet deal.
School district changes made to absorb the impact of high fuel prices caused yet another ripple in the seemingly never-ending cause and effect of the nation's economic crisis.
Three of Tina Welteroth's four kids are riding an Amtran bus for the first time this school year, and she doesn't like the overcrowding and long bus rides home her children face.
BY THE NUMBERS
-- The cost of diesel fuel for school transportation has increased 247 percent since 2003, and the price of equipment increased 44 percent in the last five years.
-- In 2007, school buses cost $57,700. By 2009, a model with similar equipment will cost $75,000.
-- For Northern Bedford School District, the cost of fuel for the school year went from $16,700 in 2003 to more than $80,000 this year, said Ron Barton of Barton Transportation Services Inc., which contracts with the district.
-- Business manager Sam Wilson said the Hollidaysburg Area School District uses about 70,000 gallons of fuel throughout the school year.
''My husband and I are at work, we had no idea this was happening,'' she said of bus scheduling confusion within the first few weeks of school. ''This has been, in my eyes, inexcusable.''
The bus scheduling mix ups Welteroth and parent Dene Schaut cannot excuse is partly typical of the first couple weeks of school.
The matter travels deeper, however, with Amtran consolidating to help Altoona Area School District compensate for the rise in fuel prices.
Amtran General Manager Eric Wolf said the bus authority is trying to save money for the school district by becoming more efficient. Fewer routes equal more students sitting through longer bus rides.
He said it is hard to count how many buses were cut this year because the authority is using buses already in use to cover extra routes.
As a taxpayer, Welteroth said she wants more for her money - another bus added to routes, she suggested.
''It's just a mess,'' she said. ''We're not the only family.''
Schaut's son and daughter ride Amtran buses to and from Altoona Area High School and said she called numerous people at the authority about the length of the ride on a crowded bus.
Wolf said bus 16P from Bishop Guilfoyle was changed after taking too long to get students home. The authority added another bus and shuffled some kids around to cut the ride down to less than an hour.
He said the problem is that parochial school routes give buses a lot of ground to cover.
Wolf said the maximum number of kids allowed on a bus at any given time is 50, and transit buses are built for standing.
He said overcrowding calms down after stickers are distributed to school bus riders and walkers can no longer sneak a ride.
Overcrowding on school buses is not just a local problem.
Maureen Gilbert, Amtran's transportation director, gave the Mirror three articles from Evansville Courier Press, The Middletown Press and The Intelligencer about similar issues. According to two of the articles, schools in Connecticut and Indiana are saving $50,000 and $200,000, respectively, by consolidating and cutting bus routes.
Wolf said no bus is taking longer than an hour to get children home, and the complaints from parents are no different than any other school year.
The increased cost of transporting thousands of children to and from school and activities remains an issue - even after hiking taxes.
School officials from Altoona, Hollidaysburg, Northern Bedford and Portage area said limiting bus idling time, trimming bus routes and taking school buses instead of charter buses to away games are ways of countering the added costs hitting school, business and home budgets nationwide.
The cost of diesel fuel for school transportation has increased 247 percent since 2003, and the price of equipment increased 44 percent in the last five years, said Ron Barton of Barton Transportation Services Inc., which contracts with Northern Bedford School District.
In addition, school bus models are equipped nearly identically but in 2007 cost $57,700 and will rise to $75,000 by 2009, while the cost of fuel for the whole school year went from $16,700 in 2003 to more than $80,000 this school year, Barton said.
Hollidaysburg Area School District's Director of Human Resources and Transportation Dwight Straesser said the district uses BusBoss, routing and scheduling software, to try to consolidate its nearly 160 routes.
Business manager Sam Wilson said about 70,000 gallons of fuel is used throughout the school year.
Hollidaysburg eliminated four school routes this year and Fullington Auto Bus Co., which contracts with Hollidaysburg, introduced an anti-idling policy, directing bus drivers to shut off running buses whenever possible. The company buys gasoline and stores it in a 10,000-gallon tank to secure a price.
Company president Aerial Fullington Weisman said the difference in fuel cost this year compared to last year is about $1 million for the company, which serves five school districts and operates limousine and motor coach services.
Hollidaysburg schools spokeswoman Linda Russo said the bus company purchased two 81-passenger buses last year.
''The larger buses allow us to consolidate routes which results in a cost saving to the district,'' Russo said.
Altoona Area School District transportation director Dana Zinglish said the district is also combining bus routes and reducing idling time.
Altoona schools spokesman Tom Bradley said money to pay for fuel comes from the general fund budget, a potluck of money from different sources such as tax revenue and state subsidy.
''We had a rare tax increase this year - due in part to gasoline increases,'' Bradley said.
Altoona Area School District Athletics Director Vince Nedimyer said cutbacks were not made in his department, but the minimum mileage needed to use a coach instead of a school bus was increased from 50 miles to 75.
Portage Area Superintendent Richard Bernazzoli said the district also imposed an idling rule this year and looked at consolidating bus routes, but it did not work out because of the size of the district.
Bernazzoli said the district uses smaller vehicles such as a Suburban, a panel van and truck to save on gas.
He said the school made no cutbacks on traveling to away games and received no requests from other schools.
''Somebody has to travel,'' he said. ''Everybody's in the same boat.''
He said in the district's contract with Wilkinsons Bus Lines specifies that anything above a predetermined amount is split fifty-fifty between the two parties.
He said last year the fuel costs went over budget $25,000, which was taken from the general fund budget.
An increase in taxes and cutting corners is enough for now, but if fuel prices continue to rise, changes are coming.
Bernazzoli said if a pattern in high gases looks like it might last for years, the district would look more closely at consolidating, possibly having all grades from kindergarten to 12th starting and ending at the same time.
The government also could step in.
The Rural Fuel for School Act of 2008 introduced by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa., in July is a proposed grant program, which, if passed, could help to temporarily pay a percentage of fuel costs within rural school districts.
The bill is headed to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Clegg is at 949-7030.