Although they’re probably one the most recognizable symbols of U.S. education, most of us don’t give a lot of thought about yellow school buses. But we probably should.
School buses represent the largest mass transit system in the United States. About 480,000 school buses carry 25 million children — more than half of America’s schoolchildren — each day, according to the American School Bus Council.
More than that though, school buses have a very important role in delivering the nation’s children safely to schools, extracurricular activities and events. School buses unburden working parents and families who don’t have reliable transportation. And they reduce traffic and fuel costs by keeping more cars off the road.
“In 2010, school buses saved the United States 2.3 billion gallons of gasoline, representing $6 billion in savings at 2010 fuel prices,” according to the bus council.
Even when we factor into the equation that the American School Bus Council is a coalition of public and private transportation providers, school bus manufacturers and state officials responsible for pupil transportation, it’s difficult to overestimate the important role of school buses.
So, why then should school districts have to scrape and claw to provide efficient, well-maintained school buses as they watch costs rise and state funding dwindle?
“The image emerging from our work is grim,” according to Bellwether Education Partners, which bills itself as a nonprofit working to change education and life outcomes for underserved children. “School districts struggle to provide efficient service in the face of escalating costs and increasingly complex education systems where more and more students attend schools outside their neighborhoods. Stagnant state funding streams force districts either to sacrifice service quality and forego system upgrades or divert funds from other purposes.”
Throw in shortage of qualified bus drivers, which most local districts are grappling with, and it’s clear we’re steering toward a crisis.
Last week, island residents and parents took to social media to bring to light the state of Galveston ISD’s bus fleet.
They posted photos of buses with holes and rust covering the roof and sides of the vehicles.
“It’s a damn shame to represent Galveston ISD riding up in something like that,” said Ralph Sendejas, who first posted about the issue. “You can actually look through the buses. I had a buddy stick his finger into a hole on the bus.”
School districts typically replace buses every eight to 10 years, said Mike Praker, the district’s assistant director of transportation.
When Hurricane Ike struck the island in 2008, it damaged or destroyed much of the school district’s bus fleet, officials said.
After the storm, district officials acquired about 30 used 1997 school buses from Houston Independent School District, officials said.
The school district, no longer able to rely on adequate state funding, already was working to replace the fleet. But without a lot of money, it’s been a slow process.
The fate of the bus fleet will largely depend on Galveston voters, who in May will decide on a $31 million bond referendum, which leaders envision as the first in a two-part plan to improve district facilities.
Included in the May bond referendum is $2.5 million to purchase 20 buses and 15 fleet vehicles and another $410,000 to build a new bus wash and fuel canopy at the district’s transportation center, records show. The school district hasn’t had a bus wash since Hurricane Ike.
“If we use the bond money to purchase new vehicles under our replacement plan, I don’t think you will see this problem in the future,” said John Pruitt, the district’s director of transportation.
The May election won’t raise the district’s tax rate, officials said.
Parents who were unhappy about the state of the buses got our attention. They could do more. Parents who want better buses for their students should take their social media campaigns to the state level to let lawmakers know what they think about the broken-down school finance system and the slow and steady attack on public education. We also encourage those parents to vote in the May bond referendum.
Because, if you think about it, there’s a lot riding on yellow school buses.
• Laura Elder