For folks who call the Alabama countryside home, school buses are as familiar as kudzu and barbed wire fences. They chug along country two-lanes and down dirt roads. We’ve all sat behind one and watched a child bound out the bus door and go running towards a front porch where mama and baby sister waited.
Of course, school buses aren’t confined to only rural settings, they also wind through subdivisions stopping to gather riders on a corner.
But what most folks don’t stop to consider is that school buses are an essential part of the education process. And a very expensive part as well. Records from the state department of education show that last school year we had 7,614 buses that drove more than 85,000,000 miles. Every system in the state, except Phenix City, had at least one bus in operation.
Some 18 systems covered more than one million miles. Mobile County ran 617 routes covering 6.6 million miles. Statewide, 368,473 students rode buses, about 50 percent of all students. Every day we use 66,000 gallons of fuel in buses.
Why is this information important? For the simple reason that the state is supposed to pay all transportation costs–but missed the mark last year by $62 million, which local systems had to furnish at the expense of other educational needs.
Yet we continue to have policymakers in Montgomery who insist that there is a “surplus” of money in the Education Trust Fund and we need to take about $250 million from it to use for other things.
The reality is that we are creating the illusion of having extra money by not paying our bills.
And because we are not paying our bills and trying to get blood out of a local school system turnip, buses are not being replaced as they should be. The lifetime of a bus is considered to be 10 years. A new bus cost from $75,000 to $100,000. Dallas County superintendent, Don Willingham, is buying six new buses this year for $512,569. At present, the state only allocates $6,000 per bus over 10 years for fleet renewal.
The result? About 20 percent of all school buses are 11 years old or older. This hits rural and poorer systems the hardest. In Coosa County, only 11 of 29 buses are 10 years old or less. In Russell County, 52 percent of the fleet is 11 years or older, in Marshall and Limestone counties it is 48 percent, in Randolph, 43 percent.
By comparison, in FY 2008 almost 98 percent of all buses in the state were 10 years old or less.
Becky Birdsong, superintendent in Geneva County, points out they have 600 miles of dirt roads in her county. Having grown up on a dirt road, I can relate. Lowndes County superintendent Daniel Boyd says his system ended last year in the hole about $250,000 and will be close to that this year.
And he asks, “If there is a surplus, why doesn’t my school system get some of it?”
Because when you live in a make-believe world, all things are possible. Why in this imaginary world, it is likely that all those dirt roads in Geneva County will be paved by tomorrow.