Anyone who has filled their gas tank lately can attest to the pain at the pump as average per-gallon prices of gasoline have risen to about $4.35 for regular unleaded or nearly $5 for diesel.

Imagine you’re in charge of a fleet of school buses that holds 60 to 100 gallons of fuel each and you’ve got 100 such vehicles. Pain at the pump on steroids.

As motor fuel has reached record prices, Utah school districts are bracing for what’s to come, but for the time being, the state’s Fuel Network is insulating them and other government entities from the sticker shock most Utahns are experiencing at the pump.

“We’re still averaging across the state in most of the tanks anywhere from $1 to $1.30 (per gallon) below market right now. It’s still high. There’s still a huge impact and we’re still on the rise, but it helps. It’s surely helped,” said Marilee Richins, deputy executive director of the Utah Department of Government Operations, which oversees the network.

The state buys in motor fuel bulk and passes on the savings to state, local and federal government agencies, school districts, higher education and others. The state’s fuel network has more than 125 fuel centers across the state, and some government agencies have tanks on their property that are maintained by the department. The network also includes 2,850 retail locations.

Participating in the network has helped school districts from the full impact of the price increase, but many are wary of what the coming months will bring.

Tooele School District, which covers some 7,300 square miles, is nearing 1 million vehicle miles this school year between bus rides to and from school and activity and field trips. From July to January, it consumed more than 73,000 gallons of fuel, according to statistics provided by the school district.

Even with the price break the Fuel Network provides, the cost of fuel has risen significantly in the past year. Between February 2021 to February 2022, the cost of diesel went up 66.2% per gallon at state sites and 24% per gallon at retail gas stations, according to district spokeswoman Marie Denson.

A diesel pump is pictured in front of a Tooele County School District bus, which holds about a hundred gallon of fuel, at a state fueling center in Tooele on Friday, March 18, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“Our costs from February 2021 to February 2022 on gasoline has increased by 40% per gallon at state sites and 11% per gallon at retail gas stations,” she said.

Denson said the school district is carefully monitoring oil and fuel prices in the event it needs to adjust its budget or determine if changes in discretionary busing are necessary.

In Salt Lake City School District, just 110 square miles in size, its buses run about 750,000 miles per year for both transporting students to school and ferrying them to activities or field trips.

Ken Martinez, the school district’s transportation director, said the fuel the district is currently pumping was purchased in February “so it’s hard to see really what the impact is going to be. But I can tell you, it’s factored in (budgeting) because fuel prices are so literally fluid. They can be $2.50 a gallon to $5.50 or who knows what this next go round will top out at.”

Salt Lake City School District spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said in a statement that rising fuel prices will not result in reduced routes, layoffs, program cuts, etc. We have reserves we can tap into for the short-term, if needed.”

If high motor fuel costs continue into the distant future, the district may need to ask the Utah Legislature to offset the higher fuel costs, “but that’s something we’d have to look at down the road,” she said.

State relief at the gas pump? It’s ‘complicated,’ Utah governor says
They’re finally making electric school buses and some are on their way to Utah

The school district has been replacing some of its buses with electric buses and hopes to have 12 on the road by next fall, said Martinez. It currently operates eight electric buses, which comprise about 10% of its fleet.

“They’re not without their associated costs but when the (fuel) prices are going up, they’re looking pretty good right now,” he said.

Most of the school district’s school buses are diesel-fueled, which is costlier than gasoline, so every bit of savings helps, Martinez said.

Participating in the network helps in other ways, he said. The network paid $20,000 toward the removal of an underground tank used by the district’s transportation department and covered all costs of removing and reinstalling fuel pumps.

“Another example just happened last week when a driver accidentally drove away from the diesel pump before removing the fuel nozzle. This would normally require one of my staff to stop working on buses and repair the damaged hose/connector. Being a member of the network, I called our local representative of state fuel and they sent their technician to repair it at no additional cost to the school district,” Martinez said.

Bottom line, “it saves the school district money to be a member of the state fuel network,” he said.