The Highland Central School District is in the early stages of planning the budget for the 2017-18 school year. At the Board of Education’s recent regular meeting on Tuesday, February 21, trustees heard a presentation from district business manager Louise Lynch, who told the board they need to decide whether to put up a proposition this year to purchase eight school buses. The recommendation is to buy five 65-passenger buses and three 29-30 passenger buses.
The matter will be on the agenda for the March 7 BOE meeting.
Lynch said she looked at the needs of the transportation program with Douglas Carter, director of transportation, and Peter Miller, superintendent of buildings and grounds in Highland.
The district aims to have a ten-year replacement policy on its buses, she said, with a fleet of at least 45 considered necessary. Highland currently has approximately 38 buses in use. Nineteen buses have more than 100,000 miles on them and eleven buses are more than ten years old. Highland currently uses three different types of buses: a seven-passenger vehicle, a 20-29 passenger bus and a 65 passenger bus.
At some point, when more of the district’s aging buses have been replaced, Lynch noted, the need for buses will level off to four or five every year to stay with the ten-year replacement plan.
Any new buses purchased will be auto-gas powered (propane). Like many school districts around the country, Highland is gradually moving from diesel to propane.
The propane buses cost approximately $500-$600 more per year to fuel at this point, but that’s contingent on oil prices, which fluctuate. And while the fuel costs more at present, the maintenance costs for the propane-run vehicles are “significantly” lower, said director of transportation Douglas Carter.
An auto-gas (propane) bus gets approximately four miles to the gallon with a diesel getting six.
The price for the smaller vehicles is approximately $56,000 per bus and $115,000 for the 65-passenger buses. Transportation aid from the state will pay for close to 60 percent of the cost. The local share, said Lynch, becomes an exclusion on the tax cap.
Last year voters passed a bus proposition for $937,000 that ended up costing the district $926,000. “We only borrow what we spend,” Lynch said, “but we cannot spend a dollar more than what voters approve on a proposition, so we should probably ask for more to have a safety net.”
The district’s first auto-gas buses, purchased with funding from last year’s proposition, went into use the day of the meeting, February 21. The buses were delivered back in December, but it took more than a month to install radios and cameras in them. The van purchased last year has been in use about a week longer.
In addition to having lower maintenance costs, the propane buses are more environmentally friendly than diesel and much quieter. Schools Superintendent Deborah Haab noted that, while it’s anecdotal evidence, one bus driver told her that with the new quieter buses, the children on board are quieter, too.
Carter told the board that one factor to keep in mind when proposing to buy new buses for the 2017-18 school year is that they probably won’t be in service until January of 2018, at which time the aging buses currently in use will be another year and a half older, with another 10,000 to 15,000 miles on them. Planning ahead by a year and a half, he noted, is a good policy.
The district needs to have at least 45 buses in the fleet in order to have enough vehicles to cover afternoon athletic schedules and to help the mechanics do their job, Carter said. Without enough buses in the fleet, mechanics have to resort to pulling buses in at the last second to prepare them for use, and there are no contingencies for buses that break down. Maintaining a fleet of 45 buses means having the confidence that there are safe, well-functioning buses out on the roads, he added.
The district needs more bus drivers, as well. “We would like to have at least two more drivers on a daily basis,” Carter said. Some bus runs to athletic events have been cancelled due to inadequate staffing available.