Student safety is at the heart of a question on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Under Ballot Issue 5A, the Delta County School District is seeking a 1.5-mill override to update and maintain its existing bus fleet, with an eight-year sunset.
If approved, the district’s General Fund would realize an estimated $576,000 in revenue in 2020. Owners of properties with a value of $200,000 would pay approximately $21.46 per year, or $1.79 per month. Owners of commercial and vacant lands, which are taxed at a higher rate, would pay about $87 per year for property valued at $200,000.
A new school bus currently costs between $92,000 and $110,000, according to the school district. District administration estimates that voter approval of 5A would allow the purchase of five or six buses per year before the mill levy override sunsets in 2028.
According to a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, students are about 70 times more likely to arrive safely at school when taking the school bus compared to traveling by car. School buses are also the most regulated vehicles on the road, according to the NHTSA, and are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in preventing crashes and injuries.
Today, about 45 of the district’s 52 route buses are 2001 models or older. Of its buses, 24 were purchased in 2002 and 2004. Four of the eight large activity buses are 2004 models with more than 190,000 miles on them, and they aren’t getting younger. According to the district, during the 2017-18 school year, buses traveled 365,000 route miles, and an additional 186,000 activity miles.
Due to budget constraints, the district could not afford new buses from 2005 to 2014.
Due to a negative factor in the district’s budget caused by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and Amendment 23, also known as the Gallagher Amendment, the district has experienced tight budgets and has put many projects on hold. In the last 12 years the district received three Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) grants. Those grants, which are awarded based on safety and a need to improve school facilities, allowed the district to update three schools.
But that negative factor reduces the overall budget by $3 million annually making it difficult to update school facilities and fleets.
State funding began to improve in 2014 and the district has replaced aging vehicles as the budget has allowed. Despite those purchases, the district is falling short in making a significant impact on its aging fleet, which is causing safety issues. Bus mechanics do a good job of maintaining vehicles, but there is a point where replacing most of the parts on buses due to wear and tear is not effective in cost or time.
Most people think of wear and tear in terms of engine replacement, said district bus barn manager and lead mechanic Barry Lister at a July school district board meeting. While engine repairs and replacements aren’t frequently required, a total replacement can cost $20,000. But wear and tear, he said, is about more than replacing engines.
As they age, buses undergo stress. Even daily opening and closing of hoods for inspections and repairs cause wear and tear. Including new paint and hardware, a hood replacement can cost $5,000. The cost of a new hood and engine represents about 25% of the cost of a new bus, he said.
“Metal fatigue is a big safety concern,” said Lister. The visible stress fractures can be repaired, he said. “But for the ones that you do see, there are several that can’t be seen.” For example, the bolts that fasten bus seats to the bus body are regularly replaced. But under the seats “are unseen factors,” such as a metal pan that is the substructure of the bus. They can’t be seen, but it’s assumed that as the bus ages, that pan is compromised. “Even if you took it back to the factory, they can’t make any kinds of repairs on that,” said Lister.