Richmond, Columbia county school districts feel pain of higher gas prices

Gas prices force budget assessment
Richmond County's school system has spent $500,000 more on gas this year than it had this time last year. A budget amendment might be necessary to meet the system's fuel needs, Controller Gene Spires said.

As gas prices near $4 per gallon, the Richmond County School System is feeling the pain at the pump.

The school system – which has more than 150 buses – has spent $500,000 more on gas than it did this time last year, when it budgeted more for fuel. If gas prices continue to rise, as analysts predict, the district will have to pull from an already dry general fund.

“It looks like it’s going to be a budget buster,” system Controller Gene Spires said. With more than three months left in the fiscal year, the district has spent more than 70 percent of its $1.66 million fuel budget. Spires said a budget amendment is needed only if the expenditures run $100,000 over the allotted amount, which he said could happen if prices continue to rise.

If that happens, Acting Superin­tendent James Whitson said, money would have to be borrowed from reserve funds but replaced by possibly cutting jobs or programs next year.

“There is no other pot of money,” he said. “It’s what other things are you going to cut? You can’t gain money in fixed expenses, so the only place that you’re really gaining money is you cut programs or you cut people, and we’re at that point.”

Whitson said the system saw a little relief in energy costs because of the mild winter, which reduced heating expenses. The system was also able to use fuel money left over from last year, when it budgeted $1.93 million for gas.

Richmond County school board member Jack Padgett Jr. said the district contracts with a futures company to purchase gas, and the price fluctuates based on the market. The district most recently paid $3.52 per gallon, compared with $3.31 last year.

The Columbia County School System has seen a similar increase in fuel costs, although Comptroller Pat Sullivan said expenses are not likely to go over budget.

“It’s going to be close, but I think we’ll break even,” she said.

The school system budgeted $1.3 million for fuel this year, $200,000 more than last year because of the high prices reached by summer.

So far, Columbia County schools have spent $990,000 on gas, compared with $718,000 this time last year.

AAA Georgia spokeswoman Angie LaPlant said the price increases are mostly caused by escalated tensions in Iran, concerns about a new war in the Middle East and the Iranian government’s threat to block the Strait of Hormuz.

Because of the approaching summer travel season and the increased speculation, LaPlant said it’s likely gas prices will continue to rise.

“Although we’re seeing a lot of signs of economic improvement, I think that people are still being cautious with their dollars,” she said.

Gas in Augusta averaged $3.685 for regular unleaded Wednesday and $4.113 for diesel, compared with $3.439 and $3.842 a year ago. It was one of the only metropolitan areas in the state to see a price increase from the previous day, LaPlant said.

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