Education

Rock Hill officials hope yes vote will replace buses

Grace Boyd, 8, and Alex Boyd, 3, walk through Rock Hill school district’s newest activity bus at the Come-See-Me Festival’s Everything Trucks event. Officials hope to replace the older buses over the next 5 years.
Grace Boyd, 8, and Alex Boyd, 3, walk through Rock Hill school district’s newest activity bus at the Come-See-Me Festival’s Everything Trucks event. Officials hope to replace the older buses over the next 5 years. special to The Herald

Generations of Rock Hill families have boarded the same school activity buses to attend sporting events, band competitions and field trips.

The Rock Hill school district’s oldest activity buses are a quarter-century old, which means the kindergartners who rode on those buses when the vehicles were purchased are now in their 30s.

The older buses are expensive to maintain and operate and can be unreliable, district employees say.

Rock Hill school officials hope voters alleviate the problem next week by voting to allow the district to borrow $110 million to pay for a variety of projects. The district wants to repair and modernize its aging schools, add technology to the classrooms and replace out-of-date property.

About $1.56 million would be allocated to replace the oldest activity buses over five years. The district would buy three new buses the first year and two each of the subsequent years. That would bring the average age of the fleet down from 15 years to nine years, said Director of Facilities Services Brian Vaughan.

“All of our buses need a tremendous amount of maintenance,” said Todd Moon, district activity bus specialist.

The 32-bus fleet has two buses that are 25 years old and two that are 24 years old, Moon said. Parts for the older vehicles are hard to find, he said.

“They are functionally obsolete because of the technology,” Moon said. “Our other goal is to improve safety features.”

Each new bus will cost the school district $120,000.

The district will not purchase regular transportation buses, which is the responsibility of the South Carolina Department of Education, Vaughan said.

While the state-owned regular school bus fleet includes 88 to 100 buses in the Rock Hill school district, not all students ride those “yellow” buses every day, Vaughan said.

But all students ride activity buses throughout the year, he said. In Rock Hill, most of the activity buses are typical-looking school buses but are painted white with an orange stripe down the sides.

The fleet of buses takes a total of 250 trips each week, Moon said.

Aside from athletic team trips to games and band trips to competitions and football games, children in all grades attend field trips each week, Moon said. The buses carry fifth graders to Brattonsville three to four times a week.

“The activity buses affect every kid in the district,” Vaughan said.

Students have traveled on activities buses to destinations as far as Florida, Virginia, and Georgia but the buses are now limited to trips four hours away, said mechanic Joey Long.

Every day, mechanics perform pre-trip inspections, which include testing all lights and tires, and make any necessary repairs before the buses hit the road. The buses also go through monthly inspections and a yearly state inspection, he said.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Long, who has worked with the district’s activity buses for 25 years.

New buses have computers and can cycle through the lights to make sure all are working. An LCD readout panel shows mileage and air pressure, Long said. The buses also have anti-lock brakes, which the older ones do not, he said.

The new buses are much more fuel efficient at 8 miles per gallon than the older buses, which get three to four miles per gallon, Moon said. Many of the older buses have 200,000 miles on their odometers.

Trips can cost about $1.80 per mile, based on a formula using fuel and maintenance costs, Moon said. Athletic trips are paid for from a school’s athletic budget while field trips are paid by the individual schools, he said, which charge students for the trips.

Buses break down from time-to-time when students are on trips, Long said, but mechanics are always “on call” to transport other buses to pick up the children.

The district purchased the 2015 model that includes a wheel chair lift with removable seats to accommodate more than one wheelchair. Air conditioning vents are located throughout the cabin.

“It’s like a cross between a school bus and a tour bus,” Vaughan said.

Safety features are top priorities, Moon said about the new vehicles, which have computer diagnostics that reveal any problems.

The buses do not have seat belts, Moon said. Some people believe seat belts could help during an accident, while others argue they hinder getting all the passengers off the bus quickly, he said.

The new buses have “soft” interiors for added safety, Vaughan said.

In addition to safety, the district must comply with government-regulated emissions laws regarding cleaner-burning engines, Vaughan said.

“We are getting greener and cleaner with these buses,” he said.

“When they start the older buses, they smoke the parking lot,” Moon said.

Vaughan says being environmentally friendly is another goal.

“We want to make sure they are safe and clean, the whole nine yards,” he said.

The district plans to have the old buses sold through an online government auction site. Proceeds from the sales will go to general funds, Vaughan said.

Improvements to parking lots, vehicle access to schools and upgrading athletic facilities and playgrounds are also part of the bond referendum.

Teachers and parents at Rosewood Elementary school hope the bond money helps change how the school handles traffic.

Currently there are three different points where students arrive and depart -- the front of the school for grades three, four and five, the rear of the school for kindergarten and grades one and two and the side of the school for students arriving by bus.

The result is traffic jams in the morning and afternoon that often reach Celanese Road, said principal Stephanie DiStasio.

Often school traffic conflicts with local traffic and the result is “so many almost head-on collisions,” DiStasio said.

Several schools are slated for playground upgrades such as the recently completed work at Oakdale Elementary. The school has a new synthetic turf field as new playground equipment, replacing some that original to the school which opened in 1959, said principal Denise Khaalid.

“Playing is just as much as part of learning, socializing,” Khaalid said.

Business editor Don Worthington contributed

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