IWCS: $1.8M needed to replace aging school buses causing delays

Published 7:24 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Stephanie Russell’s 5-year-old grandchild hasn’t made it home on time from Carrollton Elementary since the first two weeks of school.

“The bus consistently does not arrive in the afternoon until 5:15 or 5:30. We have also had mornings where the bus has never shown up,” an exasperated Russell told Isle of Wight County’s School Board at its Nov. 8 meeting.

A similar situation arose in 2021 when a shortage of available drivers necessitated double routes, causing students assigned to the second run to arrive late to school and even later getting home. This year, school officials say the issue isn’t the drivers but the buses themselves.

According to Transportation Coordinator Matthew Fike, Isle of Wight has 65 buses in its fleet, 44% of which were manufactured in 2010 or prior. Frequent breakdowns due to the buses’ age have put 11 out of service, leaving no margin for error with 54 routes to cover daily.

Fike said his department has been relying “every day” on a 2005 bus that, as of the Nov. 8 meeting, had more than 311,000 miles on its engine. Virginia Department of Education guidelines state buses should not exceed 15 years of age or 300,000 miles. Sixteen buses, or 25% of Isle of Wight’s fleet, already exceed this guidance and another six will exceed the limit within the next year.

“We have a whole class of 2007, 2008 buses, 2009 buses. These buses should have been auctioned off years ago or they should be emergency spares,” Fike said.

Fike contends Isle of Wight should be purchasing five to six new buses each year, but has gotten off track, adding only six to its fleet since 2020.

The school division’s budget allocates $68,000 to fix the 11 out-of-service buses, but by the start of the 2024-25 school year, Isle of Wight will need 12 new buses to replace those dating from 2004 to 2008, Fike said, estimating the cost at $1.8 million in total.

“We are absolutely going to need to engage the Board of Supervisors in conversation regarding a large number of buses just to get us caught up,” Superintendent Theo Cramer said. “When I hear ‘spares,’ we’re actually running spares. We don’t have any spares. … We’re going to need some one-time money this year, and maybe some one-time money next year, before we get back on a rotation.”

The expense comes amid a multimillion-dollar repair estimate for Carrollton Elementary’s ongoing heating and air-conditioning issues, a stalled central office renovation and ongoing efforts to resolve a deficit of several hundred thousand dollars from the prior school year.

Cramer told the School Board in August that central office staff had shaved $540,000 off an originally $2.2 million deficit by deferring the purchase of four school buses.

Even if the Board of Supervisors approves an additional $1.8 million for new buses, it will be several months before they’re in service. Two new buses purchased in April aren’t expected to arrive until February, Fike said.

The two April purchases were funded with Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, money the division had received from a federal pandemic relief package known as the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. Any unspent ESSER funds will expire by Sept. 30, 2024.

“When you order a new school bus, it does not arrive on your lot for 10 to 12 months,” Fike said, explaining that buses are custom built for school divisions.