Education

Senate budget slashes funding for school bus replacement

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1,000 buses won’t be replaced this year

Most weekday mornings during the school year, more than 13,000 school buses travel North Carolina roads to transport 790,000 students to school. According to the NC Department of Public Instruction (NC DPI), school buses contribute considerable cost savings to the state: buses keep 17.3 million cars off the roads surrounding schools every morning, which helps to save $6 billion, more than 2 billion gallons of fuel and 44.6 pounds of carbon dioxide annually.

North Carolina’s school bus system is a valuable resource. Yet, among the many cuts to public education in the Senate budget proposal, funding and maintenance for school buses appears to be another target. Lawmakers are proposing to increase the mileage limit on buses from 200,000 miles to 250,000, and reduce the school bus replacement budget by 42 percent.

Students’ safety at risk

According to G. Scott Denton, Executive Director of Transportation for Durham Public Schools, replacing older buses with newer ones is essential to making sure that students are transported to school safely.

“Advances in safety features on newer buses, such as an increase in the height of seats; advances in mirror systems; LED lighting, which is brighter; and reflective tape, just to name a few, helps to ensure student passenger safety. These items are not featured on older buses,” said Denton.

Replacing older school buses with new ones results in a win for the environment too. Newer buses feature “improvements in engine and emissions systems, which in turn improve fuel economy and reduce harmful emissions produced by older diesel engines,” according to Denton.

Driver’s needs are put at the forefront with new buses. The driver compartment is more ergonomically designed to allow the driver better visibility and an improved operator experience Adjustable seats, steering column, switches, etc. are all improved components with new buses.

And the longer a district waits to replace a bus, the harder it will be to find desperately needed parts at the last minute, making repairs on older vehicles a challenge.

Could have been worse?

One thousand buses that are due for replacement will not be replaced this year thanks to the increased mileage limit, says Derek Graham, Chief of Transportation Services at NC DPI. Typically an average year sees anywhere from 600 to 1,200 buses replaced due to high mileage, age or other factors.

Graham says that it could have been worse. “If there are cuts to be made, this is more reasonable,” he said, citing the fact that there was a bill proposed earlier in the legislative session that would have not only increased the mileage limit on buses, but would have also removed the 20 year age limit.

Currently the law requires North Carolina’s local school districts to replace their school buses after logging 200,000 miles or reaching 20 years of age, whichever comes first. As a cost-savings measure, the 2013-15 Senate budget proposal pushes that replacement target up to 250,000 miles; the 20 year limit would remain in force.

Funding for replacement buses would be cut by $28 million for 2013-14, a reduction of 42 percent made possible by upping the mileage limit for older buses. The reduction in funds comes on top of large cuts to the school bus replacement budget back in 2011.

Cuts to school buses hit Wake County

At the beginning of this school year, many students in Wake County Public Schools had a tough time getting to school. Thousands of students waiting for yellow school buses were faced with overcrowded, late or missing buses.

Most accounts attribute Wake’s school bus debacle to money. Planners were dealing with a budget of $1.6 million less than in 2008-09 while at the same time trying to accommodate more students. Wake County was also trying to improve its efficiency rating in an effort to hold onto grant funding that rewards measures such as putting as many school kids on one bus route as possible.

Another culprit was the Republican-endorsed school choice plan that forced buses to travel an additional 10,000 miles per day—a plan that was also not properly factored into the planning process for school bus funding and routing. That plan was dropped for the next school year.

As a result of these issues, transportation staff pulled too many buses off the road and designed bus routes that were untested and untenable.

Ultimately the local school board was forced to spend $2.25 million for additional administrators and bus drivers to fix the county’s school bus problems.

Our children are not first

Toshiba Rice, a parent of four children in Wake County Public Schools, says that the Senate budget proposal makes it clear that children are not a priority for the state legislature.

“When you start tinkering with the safety of our children, it lines up with the rest of what the General Assembly is doing. Our children are not first,” said Rice.

Two hundred fifty thousand miles for a school bus is too many for Rice. “We don’t normally drive our cars more than 200,000 miles, let alone our school buses. You can be assured that this move will ultimately affect the classroom and student success,” she said.

If the General Assembly moves forward with the Senate’s plan to replace fewer aging buses in an effort to cut costs, many local school districts could face a similar scenario to the one that Wake County encountered. Fewer school bus resources will result in overcrowded buses, longer commute times to school, and an absence of new safety features that would safeguard students’ lives.

The Senate has already approved their budget bill; it is now up to the House to decide if they will agree to reduce funding for school bus replacements in their budget.

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