Impending Fuel Crisis and Our Schools

Bigfork School Bus

by Catherine Haug (photo, right, by Edd Blackler)

Have you ever wondered what would happen when the cost of fuel gets so high that our schools could no longer afford the fuel for school buses? This is a real concern, and could happen sooner than you think.

While prices have been fairly stable for the last year, we saw nearly a doubling of price over just a few weeks, only a few years ago. As we emerge from the recent devastating economic collapse, businesses will once again increase their energy demand, and price increases will begin anew. It’s a case of supply and demand. Global oil supplies are dwindling – indeed, we are now beyond peak oil and on the downhill slide in available supply. So when demand increases while supply decreases, prices will skyrocket.

Vintage gas pumps

Many school districts (including our own) are struggling now, when the price of gas hovers near $3/gallon. What will they do when gas is $5/gallon? Will voters approve a levy increase? If they don’t, schools will have no choice but to cut back on bus service. It will likely be halted altogether long before fuel cost reaches $10/gallon.

[NOTE: While this discussion quotes gas price, diesel price changes typically track that for gasoline.] (Photo, left, from Wikipedia)

Certainly, parents will be no more able than the schools to afford to transport their own children; nor will students with their own cars afford to drive themselves. And I think we all recognize that using a few buses to transport many children is far more economic than using many vehicles to transport only a few children in each.

But perhaps the main issue here is a conceptual one:

how to provide transportation of the many to a few centralized schools, vs how to provide education of the few at many decentralized schools.

What are our options?

  • We could return to one- or two-room neighborhood schools, such as those prevalent throughout rural Montana prior to the 1950s. These schools were situated within reasonable walking distance from the residents. But to reinstate this system could require the acquisition of real estate; could the families afford this?
  • Families could be mandated to provide home schooling. This is probably the most realistic option, but not all parents are capable (qualified) to be teachers. And not all families could afford to have a parent give up a job or farm labor to school their children.
  • Home schooling via the internet is definitely a possibility, as long as internet access is available. But the equipment that keeps the internet up and running requires energy to produce, maintain, and keep humming. Will families be able to afford the cost of the internet for schooling?
  • If no other options are workable, public schooling will by necessity be abandoned. Can we afford that loss?

Internet Home Schooling Issues

If we implement internet home schooling, will we opt to standardize the curriculum as has been done in other states? How will the internet and teacher costs be apportioned across the population? Will all taxpayers share the burden as they do today for public schools? Or will the burden fall on the parents’ shoulders?

Lets start a discussion about what might be the best solution for our own local schools, so that we can help them start planning now.

4 Responses to “Impending Fuel Crisis and Our Schools”

  1. Sally J. says:

    One option I don’t see mentioned is charging for a monthly bus transportation pass that students buy if they want to have transportation by bus to school.  For hardship cases, those who need the bus but can’t afford the pass could receive a discounted pass, or a “grant.”   Money for those who can’t pay could be raised by the community in a special event.

    A second option is that the buses be converted into mobile classrooms for low population areas, and the regular bus schedule for those still needing transportation to existing campuses be taken care of by mini vans.  The mini vans also could bring students from rural areas to the larger main campus for classes that can’t be taught in the bus or in a building within their community – like chemistry, or band, etc.

  2. Catherine says:


    Regarding having the students buy bus passes: This means that portion of the cost of schooling would not be borne by the general public, detracting from the basic idea of public schools.

    Can you explain a bit more how a bus would be a mobile classroom? Would the bus park in a neighborhood for a day to provide the classes for that day, then park in a different neighborhood on the next day? Or would the bus be pretty much a permanent fixture in its designated neighborhood?

    Would the bus first round up the kids in its designated neighborhood, then park in one place to provide instruction for the day, then deliver the kids to their homes before parking for the night?

    How would the bus be heated in winter? Would the engine be kept running to do that? Is that fuel efficient?

    What would the kids use for rest rooms? Would an out-house or humanure toilet be constructed near the parking site?

  3. Sally J. says:

    I can imagine that a bus might bring a weeks’ lessons, books, and teacher, etc., to a small community, much the way a mobile library does.  It would park next to a public or commercial building that was willing to provide restrooms and kitchen facilities for lunches.  If the teacher came with the bus and didn’t live in the community (which is another option – to choose a local teacher), she/he could be housed in the community just the way it used to happen in the old west.

    Kids in the area would walk or ride in with their parents to go to school.  In Warrick MT, where Lia taught, there is no middle or high school.  Kids from there who continue their schooling, [pay to] board in Havre during the school year.  Before the Warrick school was built, everyone had to board in Havre in order to go to school.

    At end of the week, the teacher could drive the bus back to the central school, have the weekend at home, and then come back with the new week’s work.
    Of course, there are undoubtedly many other ways [to] adjust this idea.  I don’t have any idea what the problems might be.

    [Having the bus pick up kids in the neighborhood, then taking them home after classes] sounds too complicated. See above.

    [Regarding heat] I doubt it would make sense to keep the [bus] engine running.  Doesn’t sound safe or efficient.  But there are many types of heating units that could be plugged into a nearby building to heat the bus.  Or, if the community had a building (church, for example) where classes could be held indoors, the bus would primarily serve as a way to bring classes to students rather than the other way around.

    [Regarding rest rooms] Depends upon what’s needed, available and possible.  Every situation would be a little different.

  4. Edd B. says:

    There are certainly some “thoughts” herein.

    From my experience in [driving] a school bus, I would have to say that I don’t see it as a very effective “classroom”.

    For some silly reason, it is currently against the law to use a minivan to transport students unless they are taking driver’s training.