By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — Niagara-Wheatfield School District residents could soon allow the administration to rectify a side effect caused by a recent string of devastating financial years.
Faced with a rapidly deteriorating bus fleet and no replacement purchases since 2011, the school board Wednesday authorized a special vote for noon to 8 p.m. Feb. 4 to buy up to five vehicles at a cost of up to $500,000.
"I asked to determine how we could begin a cycle to replace our fleet over a period of time," Superintendent Lynn Marie Fusco said. "We went with this ... always replacing five buses annually, so that every 14 years, our fleet would be changed over. We wouldn't be extending the life of our buses beyond what we have right now, but at least it's a way for us to begin to think about planning for having a fleet we can use."
Currently, the district owns 70 vehicles, though ongoing issues with the oldest members of the bus fleet have caused a bit of panic from Fusco and her employees since September.
As the school year began, mechanical issues with these vehicles forced the district to reexamine its school runs before mechanics were able to perform emergency procedures to keep enough on the roads.
Under normal circumstances, these buses would've been replaced in the summer of 2012, approved by voters during the May budget vote months prior. But because of financial drama brought on by a proposed 9.9 percent tax levy increase – which failed to reach required support from voters – the bus purchase request was held off for a year.
This past May, school board members again decided against proposing a purchase request with a second hefty tax levy increase on the table, which failed as well.
But the state of the transportation department forced the district's hands this time, though there was considerable debate over how to solve the problem. The district, led by Business Manager Allison Brady, investigated both purchasing and leasing buses to solve the dilemma, both with positive and negative consequences.
Ultimately, purchasing won out on the board as five of the six voting members present Wednesday agreed ownership to be important. According to Brady's research, leasing offered a much-reduced cost for the first few years of the long-term plan – especially with this year's replacement – but would hinder the district in year six as double the number of buses would need to be leased.
It's even worse in the tenth year when triple the number of buses would be leased, a scenario School Board President Steve Sabo said he wanted to avoid.
"I like owning stuff," he said. "It's a better situation than leasing. We need to start establishing a plan for the future, which is what this does."
Only the newest member of the board, Amy Deull, stood fast for the leasing option, favoring the reduced initial cost, about $385,000 less than what was estimated by Brady to make the purchase.
At the current rate of replacement established in this request to voters, it will take 14 years to fully turn over the 70 bus stock.
Going forward, Fusco said it's going to take time to get the district back on track. But an approved purchase, which is expected to use cash reserves from underspending the 2012-13 budget, would be the first of the many baby steps required to get a solution from new administrators in place, she said.
"As Allison and I are learning, we're trying to make baby steps so we have some sustainable resources for things like buses," Fusco said. "We're still working through some of the issues with the budget and we will continue to be doing that for a good while here. There's no magic bullet, there's no quick fix. It's going to take patience, persistence and education."Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.