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Savings And Safety: Can NC's New School Bus Plan Have Both?

school bus maintenance
Dave DeWitt

Consider the school bus. It’s big and yellow, a loud diesel engine spewing black smoke into the air. Lots of old gum under the seats. Maybe a surly but lovable driver. And plenty of spirited kids climbing on at the end of another long school day.

800,000 kids make this climb up and down the school bus stairs every day across North Carolina. And the buses they get into are getting older. Last year, the General Assembly provided no money for new buses; this year, it’s a new plan: extend the life of an old bus from 200,000 miles to 250,000 miles or 20 years, whichever comes first, before the state will pay for a new one.

“Like everybody else that’s trying to make their cars go a little longer to save money that’s the concept of where the bus savings came from,” said Rep. Dean Arp, a Republican from Union County who wrote the new plan for bus replacement that was rolled into the state budget. “It’s just that in these tough economic times we’ve got to be creative and look for all the ways we can do to save money to keep money in the classroom. And when we’re not having to buy school buses we can keep that money in the classroom.”

One of the considerations may seem counterintuitive: turns out that urban school buses rack up miles quicker than rural ones, because they run multiple routes per day. But in economic terms, they are in the same boat.

Arp and administrators with the Department of Public Instruction say his plan could save $185 million over five years. Arp says it had bi-partisan input and support, and that it will bring stability to the volatile bus funding issues of the past few recession years.

“If we had data that said going from 200,000 to 250,000 miles was going to be a disaster we certainly would have been jumping up and down and screaming,” said Derek Graham, the Chief of Transportation Services at D.P.I. “The school districts do an exceptional job of keeping the oldest buses inspected and running just as good as the new ones.”

Mechanics inspect every school bus every 30 days. Major repairs take longer, and with more older buses on the road, that’s happening more frequently. It’s putting school districts in a bind – fewer new buses, older buses going out of their five-year warranties, and multiple models of buses requiring more sets of spare parts. It all leads to higher maintenance costs – and a feeling that schools are again getting shortchanged.

“We are certainly on the outside looking in when it comes to replacement schedules,” said Scott Denton, the Executive Director for Auxiliary Services for Durham Public Schools. “Much like our teachers are being paid 48th in the nation. We feel about the same way with our school buses.”

If a district runs over its maintenance costs, it’s up to the local elected boards to find the money to cover it – passing the costs on from the state to the local schools.

“We’re getting to a point now where its’ crunch time,” said Denton. “And we’re starting to see the effects of the increased mileage. It’s purely an economic game for them, I’m sure, trying to fit the right amount of money in the right pots, but we’re going to be hurt by extending the life of the buses because costs are going to go up.”

The most important part of Denton’s job is to make sure all students get to and from school safely. Newer busses come with enhanced safety features. They include larger front mirrors, one-piece windshields, brighter L-E-D lights on the outside, higher seat backs and integrated seats for kindergarten and pre-K student. None of these are on older buses…

Enhanced safety comes with a cost, of course. A new bus runs $80,000 to $90,000 dollars each. And lawmakers aren’t ready to concede that less safe buses are being kept out on the road.

“I don’t know of a diesel mechanic that wouldn’t agree that with proper maintenance and care you definitely could get 250,000 miles out of a bus,” said Arp.

It seems everyone – from legislators, to administrators, to parents, to the kids getting on and off buses across North Carolina – will be relying on the skill, hard work, and stinginess of mechanics to keep the older buses running longer. And safely.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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