Georgia Schools Cut Travel in Response to Katrina

Published November 1, 2005

Responding to rising fuel costs and fears of gas shortages related to Hurricane Katrina, elected officials and local school districts in Georgia have taken measures to reduce fuel consumption.

Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) drew national attention in late September when he called for schools across Georgia to cancel classes for two days in order to conserve fuel used to transport students in school buses.

In a September 23 statement, Perdue said, “In recent weeks, the nation has experienced temporary disruptions of gas supply as a result of Hurricane Katrina.” In response to those disruptions, Perdue asked that “all Georgians … make a sincere effort to conserve gas” and outlined several measures the state would take to reduce fuel consumption.

The most controversial of those was Perdue’s recommendation that school districts take “two early snow days” on Monday and Tuesday of the following week. His office estimated that would save approximately 450,000 gallons of diesel fuel and noted there would be additional savings from building closures that would “allow further heating and cooling energy conservation.”

Response to Closings Mixed

According to a September 23 article by The Associated Press, all but four of the state’s 181 school districts announced they would follow the governor’s recommendation. The school days will be made up later in the school year.

Many parents had to spend their weekend trying to arrange for child care for Monday and Tuesday. One parent, Barbara Sutton, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she agreed with Perdue’s decision, but she also said it was a little unfair.

“I went to the Gwinnett County public school Web site and [the announcement to close schools] was there in big, bold print,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on September 25. “I was like, ‘I don’t have childcare!'”

Perdue’s decision drew criticism from several newspapers. In a September 27 editorial, the Rome News-Tribune said it was “no doubt … well intentioned” but went on to note better options existed for saving fuel, including canceling football games and going to a four-day school week with longer school days.

The Rome school district did not take the early snow days.

Teachers, Parents Upset

Rogers Wade, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said Perdue made the decision after consulting with the state school superintendent, and that he based it on the assumption refineries in the Gulf region would be shut down, leading to fuel shortages.

“Parents were upset about the late nature of the decision,” Wade said. “But the teachers were even louder in their criticism than parents, complaining that they had been inconvenienced by the decision and not consulted in advance.”

Perdue wasn’t the only one looking for ways to reduce fuel use in Georgia schools. Many school districts were restricting or even eliminating field trips in an effort to save on fuel costs, according to an October 3 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article. Athletic programs are also facing travel cutbacks.

Field Trips Canceled

Danny Reed, an associate superintendent in charge of transportation in DeKalb County’s schools, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the district’s budget was set when the price of diesel was $1.45 a gallon. At the end of September, the price was $2.41 a gallon.

“Every time I have a penny increase, that’s worth $25,000,” Reed said. “I burn 11,000 gallons every day.”

If diesel prices remain at current levels, the school district could be looking at a $2.4 million gap between what was budgeted and what would be needed to run its buses. One solution, some policy experts said, might be to privatize school bus services.

“There are tremendous opportunities for savings if schools privatize their buses,” said Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute, a public policy think tank in Chicago. “Grand Rapids, Michigan privatized its school buses and will save $18 million over the next five years. For schools in Georgia and elsewhere that are having to cut back on field trips and other important educational activities because of rising transportation costs, privatization of bus services should be at or near the top of the list of solutions.”

Sean Parnell ([email protected]) is vice president of external affairs at The Heartland Institute.