Fuel costs a burden on prep sports

Bus rides are eliminated for high school sports teams. Athletes drive themselves to games or get a ride from a parent. School districts alleviate the impact of surging gas prices.

The no-bus scenario isn’t a reality in this area, but some say it could become a more likely option as administrators wrestle with near-record-high fuel costs and other rising expenses.

“I could see it going that way,” said Larry Johnson, superintendent of the Darrington School District. The rise in prices for diesel, which fuels bus fleets, “just kills us,” Johnson said.

As of Friday morning, the average cost for a gallon of diesel in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area was $4.95, compared to $2.99 a year ago, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

In Darrington, the fuel surge helped lead to a new cost for student-athletes. For the first time, Darrington High will have a mandatory athletic participation fee, Johnson said. Athletes will pay $50 per sport during the 2008-09 school year.

The Edmonds School District also made changes to help offset fuel costs. The district’s four high schools — Edmonds-Woodway, Lynnwood, Meadowdale and Mountlake Terrace — will charge $40 per sport next school year, up from $25 in 2007-08.

Like everything else, gas prices are going up, said Jan Beglau, the district’s new athletic director. Beglau said she knows the timing of the activity fee increase is difficult for families already coping with a weak economy, but it’s necessary.

“I think people acknowledge the fact that gas prices are going up. It’s a (participation fee) rise that makes sense,” she said.

The Edmonds district fee is in the middle range of what other local high schools charge.

Oak Harbor High athletes will pay $100 for one sport, $50 for a second sport and nothing for a third sport. That’s up from a $75-per-sport fee this past school year.

High school athletes in Snohomish will be charged $75 per sport for up to two sports, with no cost for a third.

Seven schools that are members of the Western Conference will continue to have no athletic participation fee. They are Cascade, Everett and Jackson of the Everett School District; Kamiak and Mariner of the Mukilteo School District; Lake Stevens and Stanwood.

Cascade, Everett and Jackson didn’t feel the immediate impact of surging fuel costs this past spring, Everett district athletic director Robert Polk said, because the district has an independent bus contractor, Durham School Services.

Unlike districts that have their own bus fleet and unionized drivers, Everett’s contract with Durham ensures transportation expenses stay steady for an entire school year.

But the spike in fuel costs will hit eventually, said Terrie DeBolt, Everett School District transportation supervisor. Every summer Durham renegotiates portions of its five-year contract with Everett and has a chance to address higher-than-expected fuel prices, she said.

Local districts already have used creative ways to reduce travel costs by decreasing the number and distance of bus trips for sports teams. Further north, administrators approved more dramatic changes.

Last month, athletic directors from the Northwest Conference, a 14-team league that includes Class 1A, 2A and 3A schools ranging from Mount Vernon to Blaine, voted to cut junior varsity schedules by 10 percent, trim C-team schedules by 20 percent and eliminate preseason varsity jamborees.

In basketball, for example, the cuts mean JV teams will play two fewer games (18 instead of the usual 20).

The reductions could save between $10,000 and $20,000 for each school district during the 2008-09 academic year, said Jim Clem, Burlington-Edison High’s athletic director. The cuts are intended to save money and preserve sports programs without reducing participation, he said.

Fuel prices, of course, were a key factor.

“It’s a big one and we’re not even sure how big yet, honestly,” Clem said. “We’ll have to see what this year brings. We certainly don’t anticipate the prices going down.”

Another problem compounding the transportation issue is a shortage of bus drivers. Marysville School District athletic director Greg Erickson and Monroe High athletic director Brett Wille both said they had trouble finding drivers for afternoon team buses this past school year because most drivers were busy with daily school routes. In some cases, Monroe rented charter buses for athletes, Wille said.

Despite all the budget challenges, high school program cuts and schedule reductions are not planned in local leagues, said 10 athletic directors contacted by The Herald.

The possibility of eliminating bus transportation for teams has been discussed. But slicing programs, “is not even on the plate.” Snohomish district athletic director Mark Albertine said.

Writer Mike Cane: mcane@heraldnet.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.

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