Denis Gallagher, founder and CEO of school bus contractor Student Transportation, Inc. (STI), listed five trends tied to school districts seeking solutions to an aging national fleet that he said points to a "historic shift in the yellow school bus market."
"By some estimates, the average age of a school bus in America has increased more than 50 percent in the last decade," said Gallagher, whose company operates 9,000 school buses nationwide that have an average age of five years. "School district budgets are being slashed and school-owned transportation departments are slow to order new equipment."
The most visible example of this, he said, is in South Carolina, where Gov. Nikki Haley is attempting to overhaul the state's fleet of school buses. She and legislators have pushed a bill the past two years that would return ownership and operation of the more than 5,500 school buses to county school districts from the state Department of Education. The bill was tabled earlier this year in favor of a study group formed to look into the matter, specifically on how to design a new funding formula for districts. If legislation is passed in its current form, school districts would be able to decide how to administer its own transportation services, either in house or contracting it out.
Gallagher said that there is a "disconnect" occurring in South Carolina, where the Boeing Corporation is manufacturing the Dreamliner 787 jet, considered to be the most technologically advanced aircraft in the world. However, students there are being transported to and from school in buses that can exceed 20 years of age. Gallagher wants to see STI and other contractors be able to invest capital in school bus infrastructure there and other states such as Florida, North Carolina and Texas.
He said taxpayers are demanding that local school boards challenge the "status quo" by contracting out transportation. By doing this, he said necessary upgrades to fleets can take place, service can be improved, tax money saved, long-term pension costs reduced and new state and local revenues be raised to focus more on education.
Secondly, he said public-private partnerships between school districts and bus contractors are developing or evolving to share responsibilities for more efficient service, utilizing facilities and private capital to invest in transportation so budget dollars can be redirected to the classroom.
Gallagher said another trend is that of parents forming groups to directly purchase their own contracted bus service or partially through a district-subsidized program.
"The result will dramatically reduce costs for schools, reduce traffic congestion and unsafe carpools, and lower the environmental impact when large numbers of parents drive children to school," he added, citing data from the American School Bus Council. "It is estimated that for every one bus taken off the road 36 additional cars are added."
Next, he said technology such as Wi-Fi, real-time parental alerts and educational programming will transform the yellow bus. While not yet widespread, some initiatives have been piloted at the local level, such as the Aspirnault Initiative in Arkansas that provides wireless computers and media screens on school buses.
Lastly, Gallagher said new investments by contractors will increase the demand for alternative fuels that can not only positively affect the environment but drive down operational costs.
"We need safer, more fuel efficient equipment on our roads. and we need to create domestic manufacturing jobs today," he added. "Pupil transportation is the single largest system of public transportation in the United States, and approximately 65 percent of all school buses are owned and operated by local school districts or states that lack the necessary capital to invest in new vehicles."