A few good men keep 20-year-old bus fleet on the road
With an aging bus fleet, a shortage of drivers, an unbelievably tight budget and barely enough buses to get students where they need to go, it’s a miracle that Moffat County School District’s Transportation Department functions as well as it does.
But with the wizardry brought to the table by transportation industry veteran Lonnie Douglass — who joined MCSD last year as director of transportation — as well as talented, hard-working mechanics Jim Cox and Kyle Bechhold, and secretary Shannon Mose, students in Moffat County consistently and safely get where they need to go.
School districts across the nation marked School Bus Safety Week this past week, a public education program designed to address and promote the importance of bus safety.
But for Douglass, school bus safety is at the top of his mind every single week.
“I’m just really into safety,” Douglass said, who has spent over 30 years in the transportation industry training everyone from truck drivers to military to police.
It’s in his blood, with a father and several brothers also in the transportation training and safety industry.
On a maintenance budget of only $50,000 a year — or $900 per week by Douglass’ estimation — he and his team maintain approximately 67 buses for Moffat County, in addition to all the district’s maintenance vehicles, snow plows, trailers and even lawnmowers.
MCSD also has a Memorandum of Understanding with Hayden School District to maintain its fleet.
“I take care of a little over 100 vehicles,” Douglass said.
MCSD’s fleet consists of route buses, activity buses and vans. What most people don’t realize is that Douglass’ and his team’s job extends far beyond getting kids to and from school every day, which by itself is no small feat in Moffat County.
“We go all the way to Brown’s Park every day — 180 miles roundtrip — and almost all the way to Baggs, Wyoming,” Douglass said. “We run about a half a million miles a year with activities and routes.”
Besides the daily bus routes, Douglass’ department is also responsible for providing transportation for countless school activities.
A whole fleet of dedicated activity buses transports students to athletic and extracurricular events throughout the state, makes daily trips between Colorado Northwestern Community College and Moffat County High School, and currently shuttles Sandrock Elementary students to and from the high school nearly every hour for swimming class.
For all the load Douglass is expected to carry, what makes his department’s work so miraculous is that most of the buses in the district’s fleet were purchased in the ’90s, and have over 200,000 miles on them.
“The average age of our fleet is about 18 years,” said MCSD Director of Finance Tinneal Gerber.
The school district’s transportation budget for the current school year is $663,729, most of which goes towards salaries, and a large portion of which pays for fuel, according to Gerber.
“We spent approximately $90,000 last year in fuel costs,” Douglass said, who waits for diesel prices to hit a low point when their store starts getting low. “With the kind of budget that we have we have to shop everything. That’s just one of the keys of success here.”
With new buses costing from $90,000 to $140,000, Gerber said there is no room in the regular budget for the purchase a new bus.
“I think when the district had more money, we had more of a plan and were replacing buses more regularly, and we’ve gotten out of that in the last five to 10 years with all the budget cuts we’ve been facing,” Gerber said. “We try and keep those cuts as far away from the classrooms as possible, and so the capital purchases and operations is where a majority of those cuts have come from…”
Other savings in recent years have resulted from reducing the number of daily bus routes, according to Gerber, with service being cut to areas closest to schools where students can reasonably walk to school.
But with some ingenuity, resourcefulness and talented mechanics, even an impossibly tight budget can’t stop the transportation team from not only doing their job, but doing it well.
Douglass is still five drivers short this year, which means he, Cox and Bechhold drive routes sometimes to fill in the gaps.
Their real talent comes through, however, in an innovative plan they’ve created to reinvent the bus fleet.
“We’ve come up with our number,” Douglass said. “We figure we can make new buses out of our old buses for around $50,000, so we’re hoping we have enough money some day to do that…”
And, despite the challenges, Douglass is confident about the safety of the fleet.
“We run by pretty high standards,” Douglass said, citing his membership on the Colorado Department of Education’s Transportation Advisory Council as something which makes him stricter than most.
Colorado also has some of the most stringent rollover standards in the country, according to Douglass, making them sturdier than those in other states.
Every bus in Moffat County’s fleet must pass regular tests to stay on the roads. Drivers perform daily pre-trip inspections as well as post-trip inspections. Furthermore, every vehicle makes routine visits to the shop for oil changes, and must pass an annual inspection from the CDE.
One thing Moffat County’s buses have working in their favor is the bus barn: a heated garage which protects them from the elements, not only preserving their appearance, but also prolonging engine life.
“It’s good for bus life. That’s why we get away with having older buses,” Douglass said.
But he still hopes for the school district to find its way back to replacing buses on a regular basis, estimating that they should be replacing one of each vehicle — a route bus, an activity bus, and a van — every three years.
“Really, it’s going to come down to: we have to find more revenue for our school district,” MCSD Superintendent Brent Curtice said. “Our fleet is old.”
With no certain answers to the budget conundrum until serious financial discussions have taken place between Gerber and the school board in the coming year, the charge is up to Douglass and his team to keep the buses running.
“It’s what we have to do,” said Douglass. “We’re just trying to stay ahead of the plan.”
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