Transcript Staff Writer

Each year, the thunderous rumble of Norman Public Schools' 85-bus armada rolls through the district for hundreds of thousands of miles.

When the 20 activity vans and out-of-town trips are added to the fleet totals, the NPS odometer ticks its way toward seven figures.

"We have 70 regular bus routes a day during the school year and that adds up to 900,000 miles of daily, regular driving," said Assistant Superintendent Richard Schiller. "Once you factor in bus routes, activities and sporting events, we travel about a million miles a year."

It takes a lot of fuel to keep those wheels on the buses rotating. Since 1999 its also has taken much more green.

NPS fuel costs have more than tripled since 1999. Schiller estimated the district spent more than $90,000 that year to keep its underground storage tanks filled with diesel. He acknowledges buying in bulk is cheaper, but it can't offset the $400,000 the district is expected to spend this year.

"Diesel usually goes right up with unleaded prices. We don't know what to look for in terms of pricing, but we know it's not going to be cheap for awhile."

With oil prices establishing record highs, Schiller may be correct. According to oklahomagasprices.com, Thursday's statewide average diesel price was $2.826 a gallon. At this time last year it was $2.187. The national average was $2.951 and $2.312. With oil gushing past the $78 a barrel mark, there may be no pump relief in sight. While the school district can draw on its General Fund to compensate for any miscalculations, many local business have no such cushion to easy their gas grief.

"We would be out of business without our vehicles," said Heather Wade, office manager of Norman-based Alpha Omega Pest Control. "We drive all day long to customers' houses all over the metro area."

Prolonged periods on the road means the yellow Nissan Frontier and Ford Ranger have to fill up two to three times a week at $50 a tank. The company has adjusted its schedule to compensate.

Wade said he spends about $1,000 a month on fuel. "We obviously try very hard to be as efficient as possible on planning our days around what part of town we will be in, but we find we have to increase our charges for out of town calls and last minute runs that throw us off our route."

Wade doesn't enjoy hiking rates for his 5-year-old business, but it is a continual prospect. The company's chemical supplier has increased prices. The "no-shows" for routine service calls are taking a toll.

"We have tried not to raise our prices yet for our established customers, but we are having to make up by gradually charging more for new customers," Wade said. "We hope everyone can live with it and realize we don't have much choice. We're proud of our work, consistency and very fair prices. We hate to have to roll over any costs to them, but we hope they understand."

While Alpha Omega evaluated the best way to serve its clientele, Kevin Posey, owner/instructor of American Driver Academy, struggled with the idea of closing his school. But he, too, found an alternative way to stay open.

"With fluctuating gas prices we were looking at raising the rates for the school," Posey said of his four-year operation. The current price for a session is $275. Posey said the costs could have gone up by as much as $200. "Doing that, in my opinion, would have put driver's education out of reach for many in Norman and surrounding communities."

To keep his program affordable, Posey purchased a natural gas vehicle (NGV). "It literally saved my business," he said.

Posey bought a 1998 Ford Crown Victoria for $2,600 and now uses it as the primary car for his students. Each student spends six hours of instruction time behind the wheel. Posey says that equates to about 25,000 miles a year.

He said when he got the compressed natural gas-powered car, fuel prices were at $2 a gallon. He was paying about 89 cents a gallon for natural gas then, and it took about $10 to fill it up. The average price now for natural gas is about $1.20 -- still far below today's nearly $3 a gallon unleaded regular.

"Before I was spending about $20 to $25 a day on gas," he said. "Now, because of compressed natural gas, it's about $20."

Posey said the CNG benefits extend beyond the pump. NGVs have cleaner emissions that lead to longer engine and oil life. And CNG supports Oklahoma-based businesses. He fills up the car at an Oklahoma Natural Gas fueling station in Norman.

"I agree we need to do whatever we can to reduce our dependency on foreign oil," he said. "Natural gas is from local sources."

While Posey and Wade have faced fuel-based challenges, Campus Corner merchant Mikel Crowley hasn't.

Crowley has owned and managed Cafe Plaid for the last five years. As gas increased, he has been able to keep his prices in check.

"Some delivery services just add a fuel charge or a surplus charge with each invoice ... you know, just a few bucks," he said.

Crowley said he is fortunate because most of his restaurant necessities are shipped through one supplier that has not tacked on a fuel charge.

"We don't get many deliveries during the week," he said. "We usually get one big one a week from one supplier. So I haven't passed on any extra costs to the customers."

Crowley said as a consumer he is sympathetic with other businesses forced to consider altering their prices. "I would understand if they were going up two or three bucks," he said.

Tony Pennington 366-3541 schools@normantranscript.com

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