South-Western City Schools' idle buses revving up for new year

ALAN FROMAN
afroman@thisweeknews.com
South-Western City Schools bus mechanic Dan Alkire reupholsters a bus seat July 9 in the district's transportation department. Workers are busy preparing the buses for the 2020-21 school year -- in whatever ways they are needed.

When Ohio schools closed March 16 and moved to remote learning, it wasn't just the school buildings themselves that were shut down.

Most of South-Western City Schools' fleet of 210 buses has been idle since Gov. Mike DeWine's order to shutter schools.

About 16 of the district buses were used to make food deliveries during the last two months of the school year, but they, too, have been parked and unused, transportation director Tim Cox said.

While this summer has been like no other in memory due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the transportation department is continuing its regular summer maintenance of its school-bus fleet and taking extra precautions to make sure buses will be ready to roll when needed, he said.

South-Western's team of eight mechanics is keeping busy checking each bus over the summer, Cox said.

"We're making sure all the buses are running well, doing body work and fixing things when needed," he said.

The biggest concern about the school buses being out of service for so long is potential problems with batteries and other equipment, Cox said.

"What we do is come in and start the buses on a regular rotation," he said. "Maybe we'll do buses 1-34 one day and another 20 or 30 the next," he said. "Usually, we test-start each bus about once a week during the summer."

Each school bus is inspected by the Ohio State Highway Patrol between January and May, Cox said. The inspections are required annually.

"They'll be back in to inspect our new order of buses that are coming in August," he said.

The South-Western school board June 29 approved the purchase of 15 new school buses, accepting the bid of Cardinal Bus Sales and Service Inc.

South-Western participates in a cooperative school-bus purchasing program implemented by META Solutions, said Monte Detterman, the district's director of business services. META Solutions "does the heavy lifting" of soliciting bids from school-bus vendors for the school districts that are members of its co-op, he said.

"Having them take on that process saves time and money for school districts," Detterman said. "It can be a time-consuming process."

The money to purchase buses comes out of South-Western's permanent-improvements fund, he said.

The vehicles that will be delivered in August include six 84-passenger and four 78-passenger school buses; two 48-passenger and two 30-passenger vehicles with lifts; and one 30-passenger school bus.

Each bus is equipped with radios and cameras. The total cost was $1,404,607.

The district is continuing its regular recruitment of new drivers to join its existing fleet, Cox said.

South-Western requires 183 full-time drivers plus 12 people available to fill in when needed, he said.

"We don't anticipate any problems" with filling all of the slots, Cox said.

What is still unknown is how or even if the buses will be used when South-Western opens for the new school year Aug. 23.

A variety of potential options -- including returning to a traditional school setting, continuing with remote learning or a hybrid of the two methods -- are under development by the district. The details regarding the plan for each option will be presented to the school board and the public later in July.

The goal is to have draft plans in place by the middle of July and more complete versions by Aug. 1, executive director of communications Sandy Nekoloff said.

Whatever plan ultimately is adopted, the transportation department will ensure buses are ready to go as needed, she said.

"We're looking at a number of options for how we may be using our buses," Nekoloff said.

That potentially could include staggered bus routes to help reduce the number of students riding a bus at any given time and to promote social distancing, she said.

afroman@thisweeknews.com

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