Back To School: Shaky Economy Hits Kids

Harder times and higher fuel prices are following kids back to school this fall.

Children will walk farther to the bus stop, pay more for lunch, study from old textbooks, even wear last year's clothes. Field trips? Forget about it.

This year, it could cost nearly twice as much to fuel the yellow buses that rumble to school each morning. If you think it's expensive to fill up a sport utility vehicle, try topping off a tank that is two or even three times as big.

At the same time, bills are mounting for air conditioning and heating, for cafeteria food and for classroom supplies, all because of the shaky economy. And parents have their own tanks to fill.

The extra costs present a tricky math problem: Where can schools subtract to keep costs under control?

In rural Minnesota, one district is skipping classes every Monday to save a day's worth of fuel. On the other days, classes will be about 10 minutes longer.

"I think it's a great opportunity," said Candice Jaenisch, whose two sons and daughter will be making the switch. "You're cutting expenses that really don't affect school."

The other option for the district Maccray, an acronym for Maynard, Clara City and Raymond, was to start cutting electives. A shorter week will save at least $65,000 in fuel, superintendent Greg Schmidt said.

There is still a cost. Kids will have to stay awake and alert later in the day, and some parents will need to find day care on Mondays. But it's a small district, with 700 kids, and many parents are self-employed at farming or construction.

"I really don't know that there are that many people with set hours Monday through Friday," Jaenisch said.

Nationwide, at least 14 other districts are switching to four-day weeks, and dozens more are considering it, according to a recent survey by the American Association of School Administrators.

About 100 districts made the switch years ago, in many cases because of the 1970s oil crisis.

Parents have been cutting back all summer. For back-to-school clothes, Heidi McLean shopped at outlets and the Marshalls discount chain for her son and daughter, high school students in Eureka, Calif.

"But this year, I'm forcing the kids to reuse their backpacks," McLean said. "They each cost $50. They like the special cool ones, and they're still holding up."

Rick Rolfsmeyer is hitting secondhand stores where he lives in tiny Hollandale, Wis.

"I've got two teenage boys and they like the brand names," he said. "They shan't expect that this year. We're a cheap bunch here at this house, anyway."

Most parents say they will spend less on less on school clothes, and many will spend less on shoes and backpacks, according to a survey last month by Deloitte.

Don't even get some parents started on supplies. Teachers used to ask for hand sanitizer and tissue; now their supply lists include copy paper.
Lenelle Cruse, the state PTA president in Florida, said last year's budget was so tight, Jacksonville schools actually had a toilet paper drive.

Yet parents are being asked to do more even as they try to cut back.

In Paw Paw, Mich., schools started asking last spring for parents to drive or carpool to athletic trips on the weekend.

In Waterford, Conn., parents might have to pay this year for annual trips to New York or Boston. The school's bus contract includes field trips, but not two hours away, school superintendent Randall Collins said.

Now, instead of visiting the American Revolutionary freedom trails in each city, students probably will visit nearby Hartford to see the Connecticut Capitol or the Mark Twain house.

Nearly half of the schools in the school administrators' survey said they are curtailing field trips.

Montgomery County, Md., is cutting funds for its award-winning math team. The district will still pay the coach's stipend, but parents will have to step in.

In Jacksonville, school lunch prices will rise from $1.30 to $2. "It's a huge jump," said LaTasha Green-Cobb, whose sons are in the seventh and eighth grade.

As fuel prices have rocketed higher, the cost of food has zoomed, especially for lunch-tray staples such as milk. As a result, most schools will charge more for lunch, the School Nutrition Association said.

Schools still will not break even. More than half of all school children in this country get free and reduced-price lunches, and the government reimbursement often is nit enough.

As the cost goes up, nutritional quality goes down. It is not cheap to follow federal guidelines for healthy eating; fresh fruits and veggies and whole grains can cost several pennies more for every meal.

Districts are trying hard to squeeze every drop of savings from buses and energy conservation to avoid more drastic cuts in sports, activities or even classes. Schools are also cutting teachers and other employees, in most cases eliminating positions that are vacant. In Montgomery County and elsewhere, they are holding off on ordering new textbooks.

In places where the district charges for bus service, such as San Jose, Calif., parents will have to pay more. Hundreds of districts are cutting or consolidating bus routes, expanding the distance kids have to walk.

In Oxford, Ala., the bus always has made stops at every house. But this year, kids in fifth grade through 12th grade will have to walk to neighborhood bus stops.

South Carolina expects to spend nearly $11 million meant for new buses on fuel instead in a state where the average school bus is 12 years old and some are 22.

In California's Folsom Cordova district, there will be no high school buses this year.

Smaller, more rural districts require smaller measures: Paw Paw, Mich., is moving to all-day kindergarten, eliminating eight bus runs in the middle of the day.

Schools are also getting creative with computerized bus routes and heating and cooling systems; Montgomery County, the sprawling district in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., has a master control room straight out of NASA that lets one person regulate the temperature in every single classroom.

All these cutbacks may seem tough, but to economist Brian Bethune at the private forecasting Global Insight, it's about time.

Only about half of all school kids ride the bus to school. Some walk or pedal bikes, but plenty ride to school in a car with their parents. In an era of high gas prices with no end in sight, Bethune says people need to change.

"I just see the image of this family in American suburbia loading their kid into a Suburban and driving them to school. That's what's been going on,'' said Bethune. "I think if parents are going to drive their kids to school and not use bus service that's already available, that creates problems.

"Those choices have to be revisited, just like everywhere else," he said.
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