The rising cost of fuel, energy and food is straining the already limited budgets of rural school districts. Many districts fear what could mean continued inflation for programs, content and even personnel.
ADRIAN FLARIDA, LEADER:
Inflation is the focus for school districts across the country, especially in rural areas, where longer bus routes add much higher transport costs. According to Kendall Crawford of Iowa Public Radio, areas of western Iowa are being lowered into their reserve funds to refuel buses.
KENDAL CRUFORD, BAYLINE: Across the country, rural students often have only one option to get to school. They are hoping for bright yellow school buses that ply them back and forth.
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CROWFORD: The one that stretches into the Maple Valley, Anton Otto High School, holds a hundred gallons of diesel. It is just one of eight buses carrying students from their homes to schools here in western Iowa. Superintendent Jeff Telander says these buses travel about 20 miles around the county every day. And because diesel prices at the pump are delayed at more than $ 5 a gallon, he says it now exceeds the budget by $ 16,000.
JEFF TELLANDER: It’s a little tricky. It’s not easy to just say, “Hey, we’re just going to delete the route because we also don’t want the kid on the bus to be over 55 minutes.”
CROFORD: Also, food inflation means the district spends more than $ 500 a week on school lunches. This leaves Telander facing the big dilemma of budget cuts.
TELANDER: Where do we make potential decisions that have the least impact on our children’s education?
CRUFORD: It’s not easy. While businesses can raise prices for their goods, schools are tied to government funding per student, and many rural schools across the country are facing declining student numbers. With every student they lose, they face less funding for often the same running costs.
Alain Pratt is the Executive Director of the National Association of Rural Education.
ALEN PRAT: With the funding they receive from the state and the federal government, they are gradually getting used to it, and how we are going to close the loophole remains a lot unknown. And I think it’s a fear zone where people live, what will it look like in a year?
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JAY LATT: Okay, here’s a sheet of paper with a budget.
CROFORD: At a recent school board meeting, the Westwood School District tried to prepare for this uncertain future. It is one of 81 Iowa County schools, the number of which has declined this year. Superintendent Jay Loot says rising costs make it difficult to address one of the district’s biggest problems – staff shortages. Lute says they have raised wages for positions such as spare staff and for bus drivers whose average hourly rate is $ 18. But as inflation cuts their budget, he says the district feels dumb. He just can’t compete with other starting salaries.
LAT: It’s just school districts – across the state and across the country like behind a big boulder because we can’t get people to work in our schools.
CROWFORD: Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek says that if inflation hits rural schools, it can send painful effects across the system, threatening staffing levels and programming.
MIKE BERANECK: The county cannot afford to offer an AP course, then students in these communities will not have the same opportunities as they would in a larger area.
CRUFORD: In the Lawton-Bronson school district in northwestern Iowa, superintendent Chad Shuk says they are primarily looking for other areas to save money. They will probably have to postpone capital projects such as road rehabilitation and parking repairs.
CHAD SHOCK: But I don’t know how many years of this we can take.
CRUFORD: He says his core budget strategy is now largely based on hope – the hope that the spiral of inflation will relax a bit before they have to sacrifice something too close to class.
For NPR News I am Kendall Crawford of Western Iowa.
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