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Editorial: Schools' aging bus fleets pose funding challenge
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Nothing makes us hold our collective breaths like news of an accident involving a school bus. Fortunately, few lead to student injuries or worse, but the idea of such a tragedy is a parent’s nightmare.

But even when buses are piloted by experienced and careful drivers, the risk is there on ever-crowded roads full of distracted drivers. Adding to the potential threat are the aging buses districts use to crisscross the county every school day.

Even with additional school funding coming from the state, districts are struggling to keep their bus fleets up to date. Many are past their prime and in need of repair, which can become both a cost and safety issue as problems get worse.

The state’s additional $166 million in education funding in the 2019 fiscal budget includes $15 million for bus upgrades. The previous school budget allocated just $7.5 million for 97 school buses spread among the state’s 181 school districts, which is one new bus for every other system.

The problem is cumulative and soon to get worse. During the lean budget years following the recession, many districts like Hall and Gainesville transported a growing number of students on buses already due for replacement. Now with some money available, there still are too many vehicles that are on their last legs. Hall superintendent Will Schofield said this year’s allotment would allow for two new buses in the county’s total fleet of 400.

A new bus can cost in the range of $60,000 to $80,000. To keep students moving, the county system has sought to buy used buses from other districts for $2,000 to $3,000 each. Those can get the job done for awhile, but eventually fall into disrepair as well, meaning more money must be spent to keep them rolling. Anyone with an old car knows that the cost of fixing it can eventually be more than the thing is worth.

Gainesville has 64 buses that average 13 years of service, some built in the late 1980s. The city district was able to buy four new buses in 2013 and 2014, but have added none since.

“I do have an aging fleet,” said Jerry Castleberry, Gainesville schools’ transportation director.

This comes in a time when school systems are scrambling to keep up with growth by building and upgrading schools to accommodate more students; when teacher pay and benefits must be kept competitive to retain the most skilled and experienced educators; and when high tech instruction requires more pricey computers and related devices. All this while trying to keep the tax rates steady following years of decreased contributions from state and federal budgets. Now being able to carry students to and from school safely is in need of further resources.

In such a climate, it might require state and school leaders to devise some creative methods to help pay for the new buses they need.

One idea would be to earmark money for buses in transportation budgets, perhaps siphoned off state fuel taxes, much of which goes to upgrade roads. It is, at its core, a transit issue as much as it is an education problem. Getting more students onto safe, new buses could keep more parents’ cars off the road and help ease traffic. 

Bus money also could be included as part of the special purpose local option sales taxes designated for education. This is a local option for districts that need help most. Any money from sales taxes would mean local residents and visitors share the burden, and revenue gathered would be spent in the county it is collected.

Another idea would be to add to the fees developers pay to build new subdivisions and apartment complexes and designate the share for school transit. Such fees are meant to offset the costs of government services new residents use, and that includes schools and transporting kids to them.

And in some locales, governments could encourage more kids to walk to school by making school areas more pedestrian-friendly with sidewalks, crosswalks and crossing guards to keep kids safe.

Until money for new buses can be found, all school districts can do is consolidate more routes to keep buses full, though that could mean more time on the road for drivers and students. In areas where ridership is lower, schools perhaps could go with smaller, less expensive buses. 

Perhaps all, none or a combination of these ideas could help school districts find a way to modernize their venerable yellow armadas. The costs of repair and replacement will only grow over time as more students move into Hall and Gainesville and fill local classrooms. 

While their safety and well-being are needs you can’t put a price tag on, the real-world challenge of finding ways to foot that bill is the only road schools can take for the time being.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.