Board discussion about Mehlville buses becomes philosophical debate on spending

Older buses haven’t affected student safety, Gilman says

By Gloria Lloyd

A discussion about the Mehlville School District’s recent bus-buying history turned into a larger debate on the district’s impending financial woes — whether board members should spend tax revenue to save taxpayers money and whether a budget, once passed, should be set in stone.

The industry average for the life of a bus is 15 years, and out of 77 school buses, Mehlville has 20 buses that are 16 years or older — 26 percent of its entire fleet, according to statistics provided to the Board of Education by Chief Financial Officer Marshall Crutcher.

The fact that Mehlville has 20 buses older than the industry average is an indication that in the past, regular bus replacement has fallen victim to annual budget pressures, he said.

“How many buses do we have with a model year of 2011, 2012, 2013? Zero,” Crutcher said. “What that shows is that with the recent times that we’ve had our budget crunch, we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. We should be replacing our buses, and we’re not.”

Last year, the district bought 12 buses, which Transportation Director Dan Gilman proposed to buy used so the district could buy more. New buses cost roughly $90,000, and Gilman found 3-year-old used buses in Bethalto, Ill., for $62,000 and suggested the district buy them instead. The district also bought one new bus this year with the help of a grant, he noted.

In recent years as part of a move back to a three-tier bus system from a four-tier system, the board has approved a plan to buy 12 buses and then four buses every other year through 2017 on a lease-purchase agreement, totaling $1.5 million for 20 buses.

This year’s $110 million budget, approved in June, already included $305,000 for buses from that agreement. But Crutcher recommended that the board approve a $137,000 variance to purchase, rather than lease, five 2015 model year buses for $442,000 cash. That would save $34,000 in interest. The district received $225,000 more in tax revenue since the time the budget was approved in June, he noted.

The board approved the bus purchases 6-1, with Secretary Lori Trakas opposed.

“I’ll live within our budget — nay,” Trakas said.

Asked by Trakas and board member Jean Pretto why the board could not just buy the number of buses already budgeted, Crutcher told the board, “The problem is right now, technically we need to buy 20 buses … We’ve got a 20-bus problem.”

The district’s oldest bus is 20 years old, model year 1994, and Mehlville has six buses that are 18 years old and five that are 17 years old, according to information compiled by Crutcher.

Although the district’s fleet of buses is aging, safety is not necessarily connected to the age of a bus, but how well it is maintained: the Rockwood School District’s contract with First Student mandates that buses should not be more than 11 years old, yet the Missouri State Highway Patrol, or MSHP, found deficiencies severe enough that it took 62 of Rockwood’s buses out of service immediately after inspecting them.

Any lapse in safety will not happen at Mehlville, no matter the age of a bus, Gilman assured the board. Mechanics check buses over daily to make sure they are in good working order.

“There’s got to be some advantage to our kids riding on newer buses,” Pretto said.

“Our inspection rate is 100 percent,” Gilman said. “There’s not a lot of difference. As long as you keep up the maintenance on them, the buses are safe.”

The older buses have not affected the overall safety of Mehlville’s fleet of buses or the students who ride on them, he told the board. Despite its aging equipment, Mehlville’s buses were the only fleet of any large district in the state this year to receive the highest inspection rating — 100 percent — during annual inspections conducted by the MSHP.

This week, the district received a plaque commemorating 20 years of inspections of 90 percent or higher on its buses, Gilman told the Call.

In contrast, the district that scored the lowest in the area on MSHP inspections was Rockwood, which the MSHP forced to take buses out of service after only 23 percent of its fleet passed inspection. Like Rockwood, most area districts, including Lindbergh Schools, contract out their bus service to companies like First Student and do not own their own buses.

Districts that contract out their service pay more in the long run for bus service, Crutcher noted. But they do not have the huge ongoing capital expense of bus replacement, which he estimated should amount to roughly $8.2 million over 20 years just to keep pace.

In response to Trakas’s concern that adding on to the district’s $5 million deficit was “troubling and quite frankly scary,” Crutcher emphasized that buying new buses saves district residents money in the long run, since the cost per year per bus for maintenance will go down as the fleet gets younger.

“This is to save money. This expenditure saves money,” he said. “And we have, today, the money. I don’t know what we’re going to have two years down the line. Today we have 23 percent cash reserve.”

In light of the budget deficit, the strategic plan and a potential bond issue, buses are just one aspect of a conversation that will be going on all year among board members to decide what priorities need to be accounted for each year in the budget, board member Larry Felton noted.

“People need to understand, a budget is a governing document — it’s not a stone tablet,” he said.

Board member Samantha Stormer said the board needed to move on from the “bad decisions and poor planning” of past board members and make better decisions for the district, but Trakas noted several more times that the board needed to stay within its approved budget.

“I will take exception to say you’re burning taxpayer money because there was a budget that was decided on principle, and it should have been part of that budget, and it should have been a priority,” she said. “And it should have been a priority to this board to build those bus costs in there.”

Crutcher replied, “And I take exception to that, because what I say on that is we’re not going to progress our thinking at all, we’re going to go into June, we’re going to pass a budget, and then we’re going to quit thinking for 12 months.”

That response does not encourage initiative on the part of district employees to continuously improve how things are run in the district, he said.

“You know, I could have tucked this away and just done nothing for the next 12 months. So instead of getting a positive feel among this group to go forward and say we’re going to do something better, it’s sort of viewed as a negative,” Crutcher said. “And I don’t think that’s a good thing. I think we need to be striving to get better and not be hammered for trying to get better.”