District gets new wheels for new school year

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

The Sweet Home School District last week moved four new buses into its fleet.

The 2020 77-passenger Blue Bird Vision buses will replace four 2002 Blue Birds that have had various issues, said district mechanic Darrin Dixon. One has had serious engine trouble. Another has problems with its transmission, and the other two are suffering from basic wear and tear.

Those four buses were among 11 the district purchased at once, Dixon said. Some of the buses purchased in 2002 had in-frame rebuilds, and the district will keep them the longest.

The district will have a total of 31 buses, Dixon said. Of those, 13 are from 2006 or older.

Under a new state law requiring buses to meet 2007 emissions standards, Dixon said, the district will need to replace all of them by 2025.

That means the district will need to replace more than three buses per year, Dixon said. “We’re going to have to be very proactive.”

The district selected Blue Bird because it has had less trouble with them than with other brands, said Transportation Supervisor Cheryl Hicks. The district has two even older Blue Bird buses, including a 2001 and a 1999.

One additional bus is a 1999, and three are 2006 models.

The new buses will take their place on regular routes, Hicks said.

With the new buses, the district has 18 that meet 2007 emissions standards, including six 2007 models, a 2008, four 2015s, a 2016 and two 2018s.

Each bus cost $113,151. The state reimburses 70 percent of the cost.

The new buses have a 6.7-liter diesel engine that makes 220 horsepower and 600 pound-feet of torque, along with a seven-speed automatic transmission.

The district typically keeps buses in service for more than 200,000 miles, Dixon said. The 2002 buses are all at around 200,000 miles. The older Bluebirds are in the 230,000- to 250,000-mile range. Route buses typically put on 10,000 to 15,000 miles per year.

While the district is shoring up its fleet, Hicks is looking to shore up her driving staff.

The district has had difficulty keeping enough drivers in recent years, and Hicks said she, the dispatcher and two mechanics were driving routes at the end of the school year because the district does not have enough substitute drivers.

“If we had staff that didn’t drive, we’d be in trouble,” Hicks said. While they’re out driving, other district employees from other departments must cover phones and radio traffic.

Two years ago, the district had 18 routes, Hicks said. The Transportation Department has cut and combined routes. At this time, it has 17 routes.

One driver resigned at the end of the year, Hicks said. At this point, she has 17 drivers, including one sub covering an open position; and she has two subs.

Ideally, with trip buses needed, she would like to have five to six subs available, Hicks said.

Hicks said the position pays $16.24 to start. Route drivers work four to eight hours per day, and four-hour drivers still receive benefits. During the summer, some work on “fleet tech,” taking care of the bus fleet, at a lower rate of pay, while other drivers find other work during the summer.

Anyone interested in driving may apply through the district’s website. The process requires a background check, fingerprinting and a physical. The district pays training and testing costs.