School buses are surprisingly expensive to fix.
“The last time we had to replace a transmission, it cost upward of $30,000,” said Fort Plain Central School District Superintendent Douglas Burton.
When the state Comptroller’s Office told the Fort Plain School District to spend some of its inordinately large fund balance late last year, the unpredictable and costly bus repair costs gave Burton and his financial advisers an idea.
They’re proposing three separate actions leading to a $2.3 million bus fund and a fully new fleet by 2023. The decision wouldn’t change tax rates, but involves moving quite a lot of money between accounts, so the propositions have to be approved by district residents at a referendum Tuesday.
“I hope they pass,” Burton said. “It’s an opportunity to use our fund balance for necessary expenses.”
For years, the district has been in a holding pattern on transportation costs. They’ll replace anything broken on their 19-vehicle fleet, but nothing new is purchased. It saved money in the short term, but Burton explained the district is getting to a point where driving old buses is starting to cost more than buying new ones.
“We’ve got some vehicles getting up to eight or 10 years old,” he said.
Every morning, roughly 600 Fort Plain students scattered over 61 square miles walk down their driveways and wait for the bus. Every afternoon, they’re dropped off. It adds up to 9,000 miles on every vehicle every year.
The hefty diesel engines and drivetrains in the 66-passenger conventional school buses could last well past the 10-year, 100,000-mile mark, but there are other things to consider.
On a six-month schedule, each school vehicle goes through a precision DOT inspection.
“They have a book two inches thick of requirements,” he said. “It details things like, there can’t be a rip in a bus seat longer than one inch.”
If there is, say, a two-inch rip, either the cushion or the whole seat must be replaced.
The first proposition would create a basic bus reserve account not to exceed $2.3 million transferred from the fund balance. The second transfers roughly $410,000 from an existing capital reserve account and the third gives the school permission to spend $245,000 on two new full-sized buses.
District business manager Carl Rockefeller said bus service would be a way to spend part of their excess fund balance but pointed out some community resistance.
“A lot of people think we should just give the money back to the taxpayer,” he said.
At an average $25.50 per $1,000 assessed value, Rockefeller admitted the district property taxes are higher than most. Lowering taxes though, he said, would be a one-time use of the money resulting in even higher taxes later.
Voting will take place in the Harry Hoag Elementary School gymnasium from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.