RALEIGH, N.C. - The North Carolina legislature hit the road this year to find another way to tighten the public school budget by seeking to extend the life of the statewide fleet of more than 13,000 yellow school buses.
Now school transportation leaders hope the change won't mean more broken-down buses, requiring costly repairs and time off the road when their fleets already are being stretched.
A provision in the state budget law passed this summer created a new formula to calculate when aging school buses can be replaced.
For years, the state has paid to replace a local school district's bus when it was 20 years old by model year or had been driven for 200,000 miles. The new standard is 20 years or 250,000 miles, and soon any bus with less than 150,000 miles won't be replaced. And now a bus will need 300,000 miles if it's less than 15 years old.
The adjustments, according to one of their chief advocates, could free up $185 million over five years and promote more efficient use of buses that transport nearly 800,000 students to and from schools annually in the 115 districts.
"That's a tremendous amount of savings that are available for ... important things in the classroom," said Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union, and a former local school board chairman. He likens the change to families waiting a couple years longer to get a newer vehicle in a slowly recovering economy. "I don't really know anybody that isn't driving their cars a little bit longer."
While the diesel engines that run the school buses are capable of running longer than before, vehicles that travel farther are more likely to need major repairs. And a higher percentage of the overall fleet won't be under five-year warranties that new buses carry.
"It certainly is going to take that much more money to keep them up and running," said David Twiddy, president of the North Carolina Public Transportation Association and transportation director for the Dare County schools.
Bus expenses are a joint effort between state and local governments. A local school system buys a new bus - which can now cost more than $80,000 - when it creates a new route to serve more students in the district. When the bus reaches the end of its life, the state pays for the replacement.
State funds also pay salaries for drivers and transportation workers, fuel and repairs. Those and other school transportation expenditures totaled about $410 million during the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the Department of Public Instruction.
The number of new buses bought by districts fell from 169 during the 2008-09 fiscal year to 20 during 2012-13, DPI figures show. That's because districts looking to become more efficient have shortened bus routes or adjusted school start times so that one bus can be used for multiple schools, according to Derek Graham, chief of DPI's transportation services section.
Legislators reduced or eliminated school bus replacement funds in two of three previous years. The budget approved in July will provide $87 million over two years to replace about 1,100 buses. But the formula changes are projected to save $69 million over the same period.
Binford Sloan, transportation director for Nash County/Rocky Mount schools, said smaller school districts could have the hardest time with the new rules. Sloan said the big question is whether the state will increase maintenance funds over time.
The new rules do provide $2,000 payments to school districts annually for every bus that's eligible to be replaced but which they choose to keep running, up until the bus is 23 model years old. And through mid-2015, the state will pay to replace any bus that is 20 years old, even if it has fewer than 150,000 miles.
State law still requires that each bus be inspected from top to bottom every 30 calendar days. But an overall older fleet means more time before new buses with improved safety features - such as LED brake lights and strobe lights on bus roofs - are purchased, Sloan said.
The budget gives the State Board of Education authority to replace up to 30 buses annually due to safety concerns, regardless of mileage. It also provides money for each district to buy two stop-arm safety cameras to deter motorists from passing stopped school buses and document violations.
The state Department of Transportation says the number of reported crashes involving school buses in North Carolina decreased from 967 in 2007 to 795 in 2012. Public school buses during that period have run roughly 180 million miles annually.
Graham said North Carolina generally has been ahead of other states when it comes to having a bus replacement policy based on either mileage or age. While the buses should be able to run to 250,000 miles, he said, the result of the changes on maintenance costs and other expenses is unknown.
"We simply have no data to say whether that's a good policy or bad policy," Graham said. "We've never run buses that long before."
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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