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State's oldest fleet of buses places burden on Okaloosa County school administrators

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

NICEVILLE — With a pandemic-era decision pending on whether Okaloosa County students should be required to wear masks during their bus rides to school, Superintendent Marcus Chambers decided a road trip was in order.

So he and a handful of high-ranking School District administrators embarked on a mid-summer trek aboard a school bus with no air conditioning. Their goal was to gauge just how miserable a ride on a vehicle representative of the district's aging fleet might be.

Students load recently onto an Okaloosa County School District bus at a stop on Carmel Drive.

"We were working on getting a general perspective of what students and bus drivers would experience in the heat of summer. ... We thought it was necessary to put ourselves through that," Chambers said. "It was definitely bearable. But to say it was completely optimal, I couldn't say that."

More:Okaloosa's aging school buildings could use a funding infusion

For years now, most students in Okaloosa County have been dealing with less than optimal when it comes to school transportation. The district's fleet of 240 buses is the state's oldest, with an average age of 17.7 years, according to School District spokesman Steve Horton.

Harvie Clark, a mechanic and inspector with Okaloosa County School District's transportation department, works on one of the district's buses. Okaloosa County's buses are among the oldest in the state, averaging between 200,000 to 400,000 miles per vehicle.

Statewide, the average age is nine years.

Officials hope that an infusion of sales tax dollars brought in through passage of a referendum that appears on this year's general election ballot will allow the district to modernize its transportation infrastructure.

More:Okaloosa voters to decide School District sales tax

Plans call for a $1.25 million annual investment of the half-cent sales tax revenue to buy 10 new buses a year for the decade-long life of the tax.

"If you do the math, 10 buses a year for 10 years, that's 100 buses. We have about 190 buses running on our daily routes," Horton said. "If you look down the road, 20 years from now, that would absolutely go a long way to getting us back where the rest of the state is." 

A student gets off a bus at Mary Esther Elementary School on Tuesday. The 99 on the side of the bus indicates that the vehicle entered into service in 1999.

The sales tax proposal is supported by the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce and a group called School Cents Make Sense. An organization called Yes For Okaloosa opposes the tax, arguing the School District has failed to demonstrate fiscal accountability.  

The average age of the buses running every day is 16, according to Jay McInnis, the director of the School District's Transportation Department. Those buses are called upon to travel about 3 million miles each year.

Every bus being used to run a daily route was built in this century, McInnis said. There are buses in the fleet that were built in the late 1990s, but those are used for spares.

"Very few, 34 or 35 out of a daily route total of 190, have air conditioning," McInnis said.

On rainy days, students don't have the luxury of opening windows to let fresh air flow.

Not all the buses in the fleet provide even basic safety equipment. The most recent annual state School District Transportation Profile, published for fiscal 2018-19, indicates that only a little more than half of the district's buses have any kind of seat belt, and none features both lap belts and shoulder harnesses.

Two weeks ago, the district spent about $575,000 to purchase five new buses through a state contract. Under the contract, the new buses, which cost about $115,000 apiece, are built after they are ordered, according to McInnis, and won't be added to the fleet until March.

However, state records show that the School District has not invested heavily in school transportation during the past 10 years. 

The odometer of an Okaloosa County School bus reads more than 283,000 miles. Okaloosa has some of the oldest buses in the state.

The School District Transportation Profile, which was updated this year through 2018-19, shows that between fiscal years 2010-11 and 2018-19, the district earmarked just more than $3 million to replace buses. That is close to what the district has pledged to spend in the first two years if the proposed sales tax is implemented.

Most of the $3 million budgeted in the past decade for new buses, $1.77 million, was set aside in the 2014-15 school year, state records show.

The district bought 27 new buses between 2010 and 2018, McInnis said. In five of the years between 2010-11 and 2018-19, no money was budgeted for bus purchases.

In 2004, Okaloosa County even accepted a handful of buses donated by Escambia County to supplement its own fleet.

Pat Ryan, who heads up Yes for Okaloosa Schools in opposition to the sales tax, said he hasn't broken down the county's transportation budget, but views accepting gifts from other counties as further evidence of a failure of School District accountability.

"To take hand-me-downs from other another district, that to me displays a lack of foresight and planning on how to maintain a quality bus fleet," he said.  

More:Gov. Desantis reinstates Mary Beth Jackson, accepts her resignation

Mary Beth Jackson was the school superintendent between 2012 and 2019. She was suspended and later resigned, and Chambers was appointed to replace her.

"Other priorities" have traditionally prevented the Transportation Department from consistently refreshing its bus fleet, Horton said.

"We don't really have a replacement cycle," McInnis added.

For a transportation department whose buses are long in the tooth and whose budget has been tight, maintenance is key. Harvie Clark, who has worked as a mechanic/inspector for eight years, said having all district buses run on diesel fuel has helped lengthen the life of the vehicles in his care.

P.E. assistant Tom Ballard and Pre-K assistant Carolyn Curran supervise the bus ramp at Mary Esther Elementary School on Tuesday. A little less than half of the school's 500 students ride buses to school.

Converting to diesel has stretched the time a bus normally would be running a daily route from 10 years to about 15, Horton said.

"The diesel does a better job of lubricating the engine, the gas just melted everything away," Clark said. 

The maintenance program is rigorous, Clark said. Every bus in the fleet is inspected top to bottom every 27 days.

McInnis said the district had budgeted $700,000 this year for bus maintenance and parts, and he is confident the cost of bus upkeep will drop if the sales tax is passed. 

"I do believe our parts cost will go down once we are able to consistently order new buses every year," he said. "I think our savings will increase even more going into that third, fourth or fifth year of having a larger number of buses on warranty, which will be a substantial savings in maintenance cost."

In the meantime, as with the county's aging schools, McInnis admits there's only so much that can be done cosmetically. He is an unapologetic advocate for the half-cent sales tax.

 "I will be happy for my drivers to have air conditioning, and the newer buses ride better. We can provide a safer ride and air conditioning for the kids and the drivers as well," he said. "I saw a sign the other day that said 'vote no for the school tax.' I just wanted to pull it out of the ground."