LIMA — School districts around the region are fighting a battle against time and money when it comes to the wear and tear of school buses.
Nationally, 480,000 buses transport more than a third of students through three primary service models, district-provided service, contracted service and public transit, according to Bellwether Education Partners. Based on the National Household Travel Survey, roughly a third of children travel to school on a school bus.
TransPar Group, a private school transportation management firm, reports the average cost of operating and maintaining a bus is between $34,000 to $38,000 a year.
Knowing when it’s time to replace the buses is both art and science and is often predicated on how much money the school district can afford to spend on new buses, as new ones typically run more than $90,000 each and each dollar spent on transportation is a dollar that’s not used for teaching students.
“On average, just a few years ago our buses were 18 years plus. Right now, the average age of our buses is a little over six, seven years old,” said Randy Crossley, supervisor of plant operations for Lima schools.
Elida schools tend to look at the age of the bus over the mileage.
“We try to stay on an 18-year rotation,” said Gregg Roth, transportation director with Elida schools. “We know that we can get 18 years out of them if we do a good job at maintaining them and taking care of them. We use them every day on the road for about 15 years and then it becomes a spare for about three years.”
Allen East schools keeps a close eye on the mileage before trading them in.
“When they get traded in they’re around 140,000 miles,” said Perry Heise, transportation supervisor for Allen East. “We have 17 buses in our fleet. We have 12 routes, including our Apollo route that go out every day — 11 local routes and one to Apollo. So our oldest bus is approximately 17 years old and it’s probably in the neighborhood of 135-140,000 miles.”
Wapakoneta schools have 34 buses, 28 of them running daily routes. They tend to replace buses more often.
“We try not to run them any more than 14 years,” said Dave Tangeman, transportation supervisor for Wapakoneta schools. “We’re trying to be on a 14-year replacement cycle. So we typically average two to three buses per year being replaced.”
Columbus Grove schools has 15 buses in their fleet.
“We replace the buses two out of every three years,” said Nick Verhoff, superintendent of Columbus Grove schools. “We’ll go two years where we’ve bought a new bus and then that third year, based on the size of our fleet, we’re able to have one year off where we do not need to purchase a bus. We do take a look at the age and the mileage on the bus. We also look at the service and repair logs on the buses and see which ones have cost a fair amount of money to keep on the road. Another key factor is the actual body itself because many times the body on a bus can give out before the engine actually does.”
Bluffton schools try to get as much life out of their fleet as possible.
“We try to keep buses around 18 years, depending on if it has been a good bus and will make a good spare bus for some years and our mileage when we get rid of a bus is usually between 180,000 to 200,000 miles,” said Greg Denecker, superintendent for Bluffton schools.
Ridership increasing for Lima schools
More students are riding the bus in Lima schools, thanks to the school board changing the boundaries of who can be transported. Last year, the board changed the boundary from 1.5 miles to 1 mile, which made about 500 more students eligible to ride the bus over the previous school year.
“We’re currently busing 1,675 students each day,” said Crossley.
Their current fleet is 17 full-size buses with four spares in case of a breakdown. They also use a van that goes to Findlay and back several times a day for hearing-impaired students.
“The newer buses will see a lot of the highway miles first, in addition to the route miles. Now, a lot of them get held off the routes, because they leave before the route would be completed. So at the beginning of their life, they’re on the highway quite a bit. I don’t think 25% would have been an exaggeration for the first few years that they’re actually seeing highway miles. Well, then they tend to go downhill pretty quick once they’re taken out of that mode and put on just strictly a route because then you’re getting that whole 224 times a day stopping and starting and turning and all that,” said Crossley.
Paying for new buses
Greg Roth with Elida schools has been at Elida schools for 20 years and has seen changes in how buses are funded.
“Probably the biggest, and I’m going to call it detrimental change to the district, has been the change of funding. I mean, the funding basically has just gone away and what I mean is we used to get funding to buy new buses. Years ago we used to be able to apply for what they call the free bus for either handicap or your non-public. That’s how they provided buses for those. All that’s gone away. They’ve taken away the assistance to purchase new buses. So, therefore, with the increase in the price of buses, and … all the funding that we lost, the cost of a bus to us has gone up 300 or 400%,” said Roth.
Many districts, like Columbus Grove, depend on the general fund to buy buses.
“It can be challenging at times from the standpoint where we’re at in Columbus Grove. Our perspective is we do not have a permanent improvement fund that we can tap into for the replacement of buses. So when we purchase a new bus, that does come from our general fund. So that is one of the challenges. New buses these days are $90,000 plus. So we have to do our best to try to work within our general fund to keep our buses maintained and our fleet up to date because we definitely don’t want to get behind because that will be very problematic for us down the road,” noted Verhoff.
Continental schools keeps a close eye on the shape of their fleet but will keep a bus longer if it’s possible.
“We currently have a rotation to purchase a new bus every other year; however, if finances become tighter that may need to be extended to every two years or more,” said Danny Kissell, superintendent of Continental schools. “We just decommissioned a bus that is 25 years old because it was no longer cost effective to fix it. It is being traded in this year. We may trade two for one as we have been able to downsize our fleet over the past few years.”
Fuel options increasing
Lima schools is exploring using propane to fuel new buses.
“It’s going to be a while because we’re getting our fleet turned around, but I think whether or not this next round of buses but the following buses will probably going to be propane,” said Lima schools’ Crossley. “Now the propane buses have a lot fewer components to maintain. Their mileage is decent. The fueling stations — they’ve got those down to where they’re pretty straightforward just like fueling gas. Propane is very clean — it doesn’t have the impurities that gas does — and you can change that motor out for what it would cost to just do an overhead on a Cummins motor.”
Ottoville schools have already taken the jump to propane.
“We have three propane buses and five diesel buses along with two vans,” said Scott Mangas, superintendent of Ottoville schools.
Elida schools are considering propane.
“We’re diesel,” said Roth from Elida schools. “We would like to look at propane. The only problem is we can’t buy big enough buses that run on propane to transport the number of kids we have to transport with the number of drivers we have. If we have more drivers, we could look at shorter routes and shorter routes would mean fewer kids but we can’t do that. We can’t look at propane because we can’t get a big enough bus.”
Gasoline is another option that saves money.
“We have recently gone to gas buses instead of diesel,” said Allen East’s Heise. “There’s a bunch of reasons. … It’s the government-regulated emissions on the diesels and that raises the price of a bus by about $8,000. So if we would have bought a diesel bus this year, it would have been around $90,000. Another reason that we went to gasoline is that the diesels have a turbocharger, all the emission controls and everything is sensors and you know, those sensors like to act up and we get the trouble lights on the dash a lot. Which means we have to check that and see what’s going on. A lot of times it’s just the sensor acting up, but with gas buses, there are emission controls on gasoline but not near to what you have on the diesel.”
More bus drivers needed
Getting drivers behind the wheel can be another problem for school districts. Federal regulations call for bus drivers to have a commercial driver’s license and receive additional training along with having to undergo background checks and drug tests.
“Our biggest challenge to getting kids to and from school is being able to come up with drivers,” said Roth. “We have a hard time recruiting and hiring drivers. We only have one sub. We just don’t get people that want to drive any more. The makeup of drivers has changed drastically over the years. It used to be a teacher would drive in the morning and when done teaching, come out and drive. Well, with the responsibilities they have and the tests and all this stuff, it’s hard for them to do that.”
It’s a common problem across the region.
“I would think that when you talk to other schools, you’ll find that that’s a universal challenge in terms of having enough bus drivers,” noted Verhoff of Columbus Grove. “It’s just as important as having enough sub bus drivers because besides just the daily bus routes, there’s school districts that have numerous trips that go out for athletics and other extracurriculars and to make sure we have enough drivers to cover those trips as well.”
The age of bus drivers is typically older.
“Usually we don’t have a lot of young drivers that want to come in and make it a lifetime career,” said Tangeman with Wapakoneta schools. “I’m getting a lot more older drivers that are retired from other jobs coming in and working it as a part-time job. As the economy is good, as there are other jobs available, that seems to be a little bit harder to find the bus drivers.”
If someone is willing and able to drive a bus, there are opportunities.
“When it comes to having drivers, that is a daily challenge. We’re always looking — always training.” said Crossley with Lima schools. “We just don’t have the drivers. That’s a huge responsibility and I understand that and some people just don’t want that job.”
Reach Sam Shriver at 567-242-0409.