Area schools changing approach to buses

Mike Grant | Times HeraldStudents board buses at Washington High School on Thursday. Washington currently operates all of its own bus routes and now Barr-Reeve schools are hoping to do the same thing.

The way school systems handle buses and transportation appears to be changing. Two years ago the Washington Community Schools went from contract bus routes to taking over transportation operations. Now Barr-Reeve appears to be heading down the same road.

Barr-Reeve officials are in the process of seeking a $2.3 million bond that will not only allow them to purchase the former Traylor Trucking facility in Montgomery to use as a bus maintenance facility but also purchase a number of new buses.

“We’re trying to find the best way to do that,” said Barr-Reeve Superintendent Dr. Travis Madison. “We want to put ourselves in a good place and not tap into another fund. We will be able to pursue these G.O. [General Obligation] bonds and still keep our tax rate neutral. We can get that property, get it under our umbrella and also start putting together a bus fleet to service our transportation needs for a long time.”

Barr-Reeve is moving away from contract bus routes. Currently the school system operates five routes and eight are contracted out. But school officials say that it is getting harder and harder to get people to bid on those contracts. That is why Barr-Reeve is going to take over all of its routes in the next couple of years.

“We thought this was the wisest approach,” said Madison.

Barr-Reeve is following a path laid out by Washington a couple of years ago. The school system’s main contractor retired and that left officials looking for ways to keep the buses on the road.

“This has been a really successful venture,” said Washington Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Roach. “It requires more personnel and oversight, but in the last two years we have saved considerable money.”

The Washington School Transportation fund for years ran either in the red or near there, but that has now changed. Washington also used a G.O. bond issue to get started.

“It was almost $2 million in bonds,” said Roach. “We were able to secure a building [the former Neff auto dealership], buy some buses, plus hire a mechanic and transportation director.”

Barr-Reeve has not laid out exactly how it will spend all of the money on its bond issue. Officials are talking about spending around $310,000 for the building, the equipment and the gravel lot across the street. There would also be at least $1 million for buses.

“We don’t know what the buses will cost when we replenish our fleet,” said Madison. “We need a little room there, a little room once we purchase the building if there is something that needs to be addressed. Maybe a little cash on hand to deal with things not covered in the project.”

Barr-Reeve will need to purchase several buses if it follows through on plans to take over the system. The newest buses the school owns are 2010 models, and those buses are not cheap. That is part of the reason contract routes are disappearing.

“The cost of purchasing buses has made it prohibitive for people to purchase them and then operate like it is a part-time job,” said Roach. “The price for a new bus is now approaching six figures.”

“That is why the bus drivers want full-time pay contracts,” added North Daviess School Superintendent Robert Bell.

North Daviess still uses all contract bus routes in its system. In all there are 18 contract routes and the system is covered for the next four years.

“It is still working here,” said Bell. “We have bidders for our routes. Our school runs no routes. We have discussed it, but we didn’t see the need to change.”

Bell says he sees advantages and disadvantages to school systems running their own routes instead of contracting them. “There appear to be savings for those school systems that take over their routes,” he said. “But there is a lot more involved in managing the operation. I don’t have to worry about finding a suitable substitute when someone calls in sick. That is the contractor’s problem.”

Barr-Reeve will have a hearing on its budget, which will include the bond proposal and school bus purchases on Aug. 28.

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