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Economy

Some rural schools are dipping into savings to keep up with inflation

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Inflation is at the front of mind for school districts across the country, especially in rural areas where longer bus routes add up to much higher transportation costs. As Iowa Public Radio's Kendall Crawford reports, districts in western Iowa are dipping into their reserve funds to fuel up buses.

KENDALL CRAWFORD, BYLINE: Across the country, students in rural areas often only have one option for getting to school. They rely on bright-yellow school buses shuttling them back and forth.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS STOPPING)

CRAWFORD: The one that pulls into Maple Valley - Anthon Oto High School holds a hundred gallons of diesel fuel. It's just one of eight buses carrying students from their homes to schools here in western Iowa. Superintendent Jeff Thelander says these buses drive across the county around 20 miles each day. And as diesel prices at the pump linger at more than $5 a gallon, he says that now puts them $16,000 over budget.

JEFF THELANDER: It's a little complicated. It's not easy to just say, hey, we'll just remove a route because we don't want to have a child on a bus more than the legal limit of 55 minutes either.

CRAWFORD: On top of that, food inflation means the district is spending more than $500 extra on school lunches each week. That leaves Thelander with a big budget-cutting dilemma.

THELANDER: Where do we make potential decisions that have the least impact on the education of our kids?

CRAWFORD: It's not easy. While businesses can raise the price of their goods, schools are tied to per-pupil state funding, and many rural schools across the nation are facing declining enrollment numbers. With each student they lose, they face less funding for often the same operating costs.

Allen Pratt is the executive director of the National Rural Education Association.

ALLEN PRATT: With funding they receive from the state and the federal government kind of slowly weaning away and how we're going to pick up the slack, there's just a lot of unknowns. And I think that's the fear area that people are kind of living in, is what's it going to look like in a year?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAY LUTT: All right, you got a sheet of paper with the budget in front of you.

CRAWFORD: At a recent school board meeting, Westwood Community School District tried to prepare for that uncertain future. It's one of 81 Iowa school districts whose enrollment declined this year. Superintendent Jay Lutt says rising costs are making it harder to address one of the district's biggest issues - staffing shortages. Lutt says they've raised their wages for positions like substitute staff and for bus drivers, whose average hourly rate is $18. But as inflation shrinks their budget, he says the district feels stuck. It just can't compete with other starting wages.

LUTT: It's just put school districts in - across the state and across the nation kind of behind a big boulder because we can't get the people to our schools to work.

CRAWFORD: Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek says when inflation hits rural schools, it can send ripple effects throughout the entire system, threatening staffing levels and programming.

MIKE BERANEK: A district can't afford to offer an AP course, then those students in those communities won't have the same opportunities that would occur in a larger district.

CRAWFORD: At Lawton-Bronson Community School District in northwest Iowa, Superintendent Chad Shook says they're looking first to other areas to save money. It's likely they'll have to postpone capital projects, like the resurfacing of their track field and the repaving of their parking lot.

CHAD SHOOK: But I don't know how many years of this we can take.

CRAWFORD: He says his main budget strategy right now rests largely on hope - hope that the inflation spiral unwinds a bit before they have to sacrifice anything too close to the classroom.

For NPR News, I'm Kendall Crawford in western Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET'S "TWO THOUSAND AND SEVENTEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.