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Aging buses nearing end of the road

With an aging fleet of 160 buses that share several million miles between them, Halifax County Public Schools is in dire need of new means of transportation.

Director of Transportation Dave Guill said Tuesday 135 buses are currently on the road within the school system, and the remaining 25 are used as spares and for parts.

The transportation department needs 10 new buses, but Guill said it could easily use 20.

“It’s hard to say, we are behind on the cycle. The state recommends getting 10 to 12 a year, but we’re hoping to get 10 this year,” said Guill. “It’s very important that we buy some.”

The last time the school system purchased “new” buses was two summers ago when they purchased seven larger used buses from Loudoun County and cut 15 bus routes, according to the director of transportation.

The Halifax County School System hasn’t purchased new school buses in nearly five years and is in desperate need of a new fleet, Guill said.

During a budget work session on Jan. 7, Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon suggested several items for consideration that she and school board members plan to present to the board of supervisors this week as part of the school system’s funding requests. 

The request for 10 buses is second on that list, at an anticipated cost of $160,000 annually over a five-year lease purchase period.

“Buses cost $80,000 these days,” said Guill.

With an aging fleet, the transportation director said mechanical issues end up costing the school system more in the long run.

“Just today we had two break down. The other day it was four or five. It varies, and it’s not always that they don’t start. It can be anything from the lights not working to brakes,” said Guill.

However, he feels comfortable that those buses on the road are safe, comparing them simply to old cars with a lot of miles.

The average age of a bus on route in the county today is 11 years carrying an approximate 130,0000 to 135,000 miles. The oldest spare bus is a 1991 model, and the oldest on route is a 1995 model.

Guill said the mechanics in the garage do 45-day inspections as required by the state to keep up the maintenance “the best they can” by checking brakes, changing oil and tires. 

Drivers also are required to complete a pre-trip inspection before driving the bus in the morning and afternoon.

“Our biggest problem is we don’t have any suitable spares for the special education buses,” added Guill.

The state recommends having 10 percent of the fleet for spares, and although Guill said they may have 18 percent, they’re not all “road worthy.” Instead, these older buses are used for parts and used for everything until they are sold at auction.

The efficiency study completed last March suggested a full-time router position be added to the transportation department as well as staggered bell times for the schools. 

South Boston Elementary School already participates in staggered bell times with dual bus routes, said Guill.

“Our county is too big for more schools to use staggered bell times. It wouldn’t be viable,” he added. “It has been discussed (filling the full-time router position) but with all the other needs we have at this time, I don’t think it is critical.”

Guill admitted he’s not completely familiar with all the items on the list Herndon plans to submit to the county board of supervisors, but he added, “It’s obvious you got to educate the children, but you got to get them there first. We transport a large percent of the children in this county.”

When asked if he expects the transportation department to see any cuts in positions in the upcoming budget, he responded, “I certainly hope not, but I don’t think we will be adding anything.

“We are here to serve the students and here to serve the schools. We just need the means to do it,” Guill concluded.