By Kimberly S. Wetzel - Contra Costa Times/San Jose Mercury News
August 25 -- Children across the country will return to school this year to face a money-hungry bully: the unstable economy.
Soaring food prices will extract more lunch money from students, while higher pump prices mean children will either pay more to ride a gas-guzzling bus or won't get a seat at all. Field trips are being reduced or scrapped altogether to save fuel.
It doesn't stop there.
California budget cuts mean students will compete for the attention of fewer teachers. Some electives will be nixed, and booster clubs and education foundations, which raise money for such things as classroom projects, are collecting less as businesses cut back and parents fret over job security.
"I think everybody, if they're not struggling themselves, they're aware that the overall economy is declining and there's just a sense of caution," said Teresa Barnett, an Albany parent and board member of the Albany education foundation SchoolCARE. "Just the basics, the fuel and food prices are enough to be crimping people's budgets."
Gas prices shot up an estimated 35 percent to 40 percent nationwide in the past year, while food costs jumped between 12 percent and 20 percent.
Those grumbling yellow buses — which have 25- to 100-gallon tanks and chug along at seven to eight miles per gallon — can cost as much as $400 to $500 to fill. That has forced schools across the country to make cost-saving shortcuts on service or to charge fees.
Districts in Utah, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Washington, Minnesota, Colorado, Massachusetts and elsewhere have resorted to four-day school weeks or reduced or eliminated bus routes altogether.
The service changes come at a time when many schools are seeing more students at the bus stop because parents no longer can afford the gas used to drive their children to school.
Bay Area school leaders have taken measures of their own. The Fremont school district this week will consider doubling its annual student bus fee to $700; the John Swett district increased bus fees to $300 this year. Contra Costa's Knightsen school district, which used to let students ride for free, now charges $200 annually.
Hayward students may see more localized field trips and fewer buses as the district consolidates routes, said Debi Parker, Hayward Unified's transportation manager.
"We're trying to tighten it up as much as we possibly can," Parker said, noting that the district pays $4.27 for diesel fuel and the cost fluctuates weekly.
Some administrators likened the situation to the oil crisis of three decades ago.
"In the '70s we couldn't get fuel," said Bill Stephens, Fremont's associate superintendent of business services. "Today we can get the fuel, but it's exploding in cost for us."
Pump prices also are driving up food costs, as drivers add fuel surcharges to customer costs. Districts are paying more than ever to stock cafeterias with staples such as milk and they're passing the cost on to students.
A recent survey by the national School Nutrition Association said that 75 percent of responding school districts had either raised school lunch prices or plan to this year.
"We've been dealing with this for quite a few months now," said Stephanie Bruce, School Nutrition Association president and director of food and nutrition services at the Ontario-Montclair school district in Southern California.
"Everything is being passed on, even with the cost of fuel going up, it doesn't just effect food and gas prices, it effects all of our petroleum products, like lunch trays."
The Albany school district increased prices by 50 cents last week; the Antioch, Oakland, John Swett, Dublin and New Haven districts recently raised prices, as well. Students who receive free and reduced-cost lunches will not be charged more.
"It's affecting everyone," said Peggy Stevenson, director of food services for Antioch Unified. "It's affecting restaurants; it's affecting people buying groceries at the store."
California children who escape lunch and bus increases will be bullied by the economy in other ways.
The state's budget deficit necessitated that districts throughout the state cut millions from budgets in the spring, meaning fewer teachers, supplies and class offerings. Children in the Mt. Diablo school district will have fewer electives and larger kindergarten classrooms. West Contra Costa students must make due without some of their favorite secretaries, teachers and other staff members.
Outside the classroom, parents hampered by high costs will have to make difficult decisions during back-to-school shopping trips.
Parents have become used to paying more for things that schools increasingly can't provide, such as sports uniforms, class projects and proms. That's why Hayward High senior Verena Kwan said she was not too concerned about the economy's grip on schools.
"Senior year you kind of expect to fork over a lot of money," she said. "
But Richmond parent Maria Lopez was worried. She watched her grocery and gas bills swell over the past several months, and because of that she had little money to spend on school clothes this year.
"It's difficult right now, definitely," Lopez said. "I worry about how I'm going to get them to school; I worry about how I'm going to pay for supplies. I'm just holding on right now, but I'm afraid it's going to get a lot worse."
Staff writers Linh Tat, Kristofer Noceda, Paula King, Eric Louie, Rowena Coetsee and Shelly Meron contributed to this article.