Last in a three-part series examining the Fort Worth school district bond propositions.FORT WORTH - Todays school buses may look essentially the same as the iconic school bus yellow coach that has become synonymous with new backpacks, school supplies and the first day of school.But a closer look will reveal that school bus design has evolved over the years to include energy savings, improve driver safety and help protect the precious cargo on board.Upgrades include better air-conditioning systems to improve circulation in hot and cold weather, cameras with digital recording equipment for easier review, front and back flashing stop signs that swing out to warn drivers that the bus is stopped, and high-backed seats intended to be safer in a crash.Newer buses in the Fort Worth school district already have these features, and more will be added if voters approve the third proposition of a $490 million bond package Nov. 5. It is important to refresh or replace vital equipment on a regular schedule because it is then less expensive to maintain and it is more efficient in the overall running of the school district, Superintendent Walter Dansby said. Most of the $30 million in Proposition 3 will be used to replace aging buses. Funds are also included to maintain buses, repair vehicles, and replace student desks, band uniforms and musical instruments.Proposition 1, at $386.6 million, is the bulk of the package, with money earmarked for classroom additions, security and technology. Proposition 2, at $73.3 million, is for two new campuses to house a performing and fine arts school and a science and technology school. The much smaller Proposition 3 includes money for nonconstruction items aimed at helping the district run smoothly.476 buses in its fleetEach day, 20,000 students in the Fort Worth district ride buses to school. The districts transportation department operates more than 3,000 routes, with the first bus leaving the yard at 5:20 a.m. and the earliest pickup at 6:03 a.m. Buses are also used to transport students on field trips and extracurricular events.The average age of a bus in the districts fleet of 476 is 91/2 years. More than half the fleet, about 270 buses, is more than 10 years old. Maintenance on buses that are 10 years or older, including work on tires, brakes and other systems, averages $6,800 a year. The districts goal is a fleet age closer to 71/2 years. The bond proposition would replace buses bought between 1995 and 2001, said Art Cavazos, the chief of district operations.We have a fairly decent fleet of buses, but if we didnt replace any in the next five years, our average would run into the 14-year range, way over the industry standard, Cavazos said. We are in good shape with the buses. This will allow us to continue to be in good shape.Replacement schedules for buses can depend on several factors, including odometer mileage and the length of routes, said Charley Kennington, innovative transportation solutions director at the states Region 4 Education Service Center in Houston. It really varies, so there is not a magic number, said Kennington, a former school transportation director at the Texas Department of Public Safety. If I had to say an average, maybe in the eight- or nine-year range. At 10 years, the manufacturers dont even have to provide parts. Youve got to start hunting different parts.The district funded 170 buses through the 2007 bond program using $12 million from the base proposition of $586.8 million and additional funds from a $6.7 million proposition to repay the general fund for buses originally bought with operating fund money. Most of the buses in the fleet are diesel-fueled, but the district is believed to be the nations largest hybrid school bus fleet operator. Federal funding paid part of the cost of 25 diesel-electric hybrid buses in 2009. The newest buses are used for everyday runs. Older ones are used for backup routes. Buses that are no longer suitable for the fleet are auctioned. New buses are equipped to follow 2011 federal requirements that seat backs be 28 inches rather than 24. The higher seat back is designed to keep taller students from hurtling forward during a crash, said Michael J. Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, based in Albany, N.Y. That extra 4 inches helps keep a passenger in a compartment, Martin said. Its a challenge for the driver. It is harder to see passengers that dont come up as high. It has pros and cons. But in general, from a safety standpoint, the consensus is 28 inches is preferable.Fort Worth bus driver Toni Mays, 51, said she likes the higher seats, noting that she can use inside mirrors to see smaller riders. That way, you dont have to worry about a child flying over a seat. I like them because if you have to make a quick stop, the child has safety in the front and safety behind them, said Mays, of Fort Worth.White fleetThe districts white fleet includes heavy equipment vehicles such as tractors and forklifts, but bond money would be concentrated on vehicles used for maintenance and repair, Cavazos said. The district operates 133 trucks and 75 vans.They, too, are aging: 93 of the 133 trucks are 10 years or older, and 70 of 133 are 15 years or older. The bond would replace vehicles bought in or before 1995 and those that have 170,000 miles or more on the odometer.The district has bought 15 trucks in the last five years. No money was earmarked in the 2007 bond program for the white fleet. The district also operates three warehouse hybrid box trucks funded by a 2010 pollution reduction grant from the environmental group Downwinders at Risk.We keep our trucks running as much as we can. We dont have trouble with them breaking down, but if we dont have the vehicles, our guys cant get out and fix the air conditioning or fix the plumbing, Cavazos said. Uniforms and desksProposition 3 includes $2.5 million to buy instruments for marching and mariachi bands and the orchestra. Band uniforms would also be funded. New equipment is needed to replace aging items and to accommodate students new to the districts fine arts programs.The district allotted $1.17 million from the 2007 bond to buy middle school band, high school band, marching band and concert uniforms, as well as mariachi band instruments and uniforms. The average life span of a band uniform is eight years.No money was included in the 2007 bond for classroom furniture. The 2013 bond funds would be used to equip existing campuses as the district grows and to have furniture on hand to replace broken items, Deputy Superintendent Hank Johnson said.Furniture for classroom additions and at new campuses proposed in the 2013 package is included in the cost for those projects. It is just a means to make sure our furniture is not broken or out of order in places theyre not getting additions, Johnson said.
Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326 Twitter: @jessamybrown