New Bus Purchase Grants Shelve Some Refurbishment Projects

While some school districts continue to see the benefits of refurbishing their fleets, an increasing number of schools are using grant money to supplement new purchases.

San Marcos Unified School District in California refurbished this 1998 Blue Bird Rear Engine 84-Passenger, transit-style school bus for activity and field trips. (Photo courtesy of Mike Sawyer.)
San Marcos Unified School District in California refurbished this 1998 Blue Bird Rear Engine 84-Passenger, transit-style school bus for activity and field trips. (Photo courtesy of Mike Sawyer.)

While refurbishing school buses to squeeze out more years of operational life may seem like an ancient fleet replacement alternative for some school districts and contractors, others still find it to be a more cost-effective approach, compared to new purchases. But a recent influx of grant funds from states, the federal government and the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Fund are tipping the scales.

Going the refurbished route can save school districts money, especially those districts that without much budget room or a large tax base to draw from for new purchases. Ron Halbert, the owner of Bus Marts, Inc., said that new school buses could exceed $100,000, compared to purchasing an $18,000 refurbished bus the company sells for activity trips.

Based in Daleville, Indiana, Bus Marts has been in business for the past 45 years, but Halbert at age 77 is semi-retired. He said he now only performs minimal school bus refurbs, the viability of which is determined by the particular bus’ duty cycle.

Depending on where a district is located nationally determines the amount of refurbishing work that is needed, in order to upgrade its bus fleet. Halbert said buses that operate in areas that received considerable amounts of snow are going to be rusted underneath, so those buses will often require a complete structure rebuild.

“You take a bus that has been running for eight or 10 years. If it has been running in Buffalo, New York or [in] Cleveland, Ohio, it is going to be rusted underneath,” Halbert explained. “So, they are going to have to be sand-blasted and recoated. Maybe some of the structure is even rusted through and has to be rebuilt.”

The amount of necessary work would still likely be less than the cost of purchasing a new bus, especially if the bus has minimal miles on it—or it has been operating for a short number of years, he added. However, the refurbed buses often will be equipped with the latest electronic wiring, equipment and software, unless those items are specifically called for during the upgrade.

San Marcos Unified School District in California strives to capture the most lifespan out of its vehicles, while also upgrading them with the latest technology. The district, which is located north of San Diego, carries out most of its refurbs in-house. Besides sending the vehicles to a local contractor for a paint job every 10 years, the district adds new camera systems, repairs seats, rebuilds motors, replaces transmissions and upgrades technological capabilities.

“Here in California, we don’t have snow, we don’t have salt and we don’t have ice,” noted Michael Sawyer, executive director of transportation. “So, our buses tend to keep for 25 years.”

Sawyer added that the district is still allowed to operate diesel-powered school buses, which have iron-clad motors and transmission systems, so there isn’t a need for so many new school buses. “They are just really strong, heavy-duty buses. We keep them well-maintained and keep them looking nice for California Highway Patrol inspections. You can drive them for a long time,” Sawyer added.

San Marcos USD currently has 13 buses that were built in 1998, and two 1999 transit-style buses that are mostly used for field trips and/or activity trips. One obstacle to keeping school buses in California for a long time is the state law that new purchases after 2005 must be equipped with lap/shoulder seat belts.

“These buses were purchased way before that, so they don’t have seat belts in them—that’s the downside,” Sawyer said. “I wouldn’t refurbish these buses with seat belts, but as we replace the buses, obviously, the new buses will have seat belts.”

San Marcos’ fleet currently includes 47 school buses with the three-point seat belts and 27 without them. The buses without seat belts are mostly only used for activity trips. Sawyer said the district has used those rear engine buses for 20 years.

Another option for school bus refurbishment is to simply update their look or install the latest technology, camera or apps. Perryton ISD in the rural Texas Panhandle is going in a different direction. To date, it has been unable to hire a full-time transportation director. It recently outsourced transportation management, as well as bus repair, to a third-party company.


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Superintendent Tim Little, Ph.D., said that Perrytown’s buses are being fixed for safety-related issues. Typical items include replacing broken window glass and lights. But the buses also need cosmetic updates, such as cleaning and repainting the wheels, spot painting the buses and replacing any interior damage. Little also reported that all of the buses are receiving high-definition camera systems and two-way radios.

Grant Money Deters Refurbishing

Black River Unified School District in Sullivan, Ohio, received several Volkswagen grants to purchase new school buses, instead of refurbishing old ones, like the district has done in the past. Currently, Black River has 18 school buses in its fleet, and it used the VW money to replaced four buses over the past four years.

“As we replace buses, we are putting new cameras into them,” Transportation Supervisor Bruce Berry said. “Eventually, I hope to put them on all of our fleet. But right now, as we replace a bus, they are being ordered with the camera system, including the stop-arm camera.”

Rohrer Bus in Duncannon, Pennsylvania, is one of many bus dealers that also provides refurb services. Ed Allandar, vice president of maintenance, said the company has seen a decrease in the number of refurb requests.

“The refurb business has dropped off because of all the Volkswagen money out there,” he said. “People are getting grants to replace, rather than rebuild.”

However, refurbishing does help capture all of the potential value and full life cycle of the vehicle.

He said most transportation directors are trying to run their fleets for 15 to 18 years. If the vehicles still can travel additional miles, and the mechanics still can provide the necessary service, he said refurbishing remains a viable, cost-effective option.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the June 2019 Issue of School Transportation News.