By Andrew Cluley
Ann Arbor Public Schools will have 23 new school buses this fall, as the district begins the process of updating the bus fleet. The School Board approved the $2.3 million dollar purchase of 15 general education buses, six special education buses, and a pair of buses for pre-school students this week. The new buses are being funded through the $33 million bond proposal voters approved in May.
By approving the purchase before July 1st the district is saving about $43,000, because prices are increasing by two percent next month. The buses may not be on hand at the beginning of the school year, but should arrive sometime this fall.
In addition to buying these buses Ann Arbor Public Schools will retire 13 buses. These two actions will bring the average age of the district’s bus fleet down to 7.4-years-old from slightly over ten-years-old.
The new buses will get 20 to 30 percent better fuel economy and are expected to be about 90 percent cleaner in terms of emissions. The buses will also have additional safety features such as stability control and taller seats.
The School Board also received an update on progress being made as Durham School Services takes over the transportation from the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.
Superintendent Jeanice Swift says this type of transition for a district of Ann Arbor’s size is always a challenge, but Durham’s staff is already hard at work on the process. “We asked them to streamline, make routes more efficient and get pick-ups closer to school start times,” Swift says.
Durham’s Regional Vice-President Brad Tate says they will be ready when school starts September 8th. “We don’t look at it like it’s a choice whether we’ll be ready or not, I mean we have to. I mean all these kids have to be picked up safely, delivered to and from school, and ready to learn on time,” Tate says. “It’s not just a creed, it’s a mantra because we as parents, we too rely on buses in some places to transport our children.”
While Durham is committed to delivering a quality service right from the start of the school year, Board Member Donna Lasinski wants to make sure common sense is included when bus routes are developed, not just going strictly by an algorithm. “I know I won’t personally see it as a flaw if bus routes get adjusted during the first month of school,” Lasinski says. “I will see it as a sign of success. I will see that as a sign that you’re listening to our community, that you’re applying common sense to the algorithm. That you’re really thinking about our students arriving ready, confident, and prepared to learn every morning.”
Whatever route the buses will be taking, Durham is installing technology to make sure they know where each bus is located. GPS systems will be in each bus, as well as cameras, and electronic vehicle inspection reports. Initially this information will only be used internally, but Superintendent Swift says the goal is for parents to eventually benefit from this information in real time. “Both the tracking of the bus from a mobile device and the email notification when a bus is on or off it’s time are things that are definitely on our list,” she says. “We’re looking forward to that day when we will have that, and I understand we can’t have it all the first day, but we’re very excited about that.”
Many in the district however are concerned about how the start of the year will go, remembering the difficulties that happened when bus service first transitioned to the WISD. Trustee Simone Lightfoot describes that first week as a nightmare. Durham General Manager Amy Wolfe says they will have plenty of people on hand to answer the phones if parents have concerns.
Durham officials also say they expect to avoid the staffing issues that caused problems this year. 88 of the 90 drivers from this year have opted to continue driving for Ann Arbor schools, and 24 of the bus monitors will remain. Durham hopes to add about 30 more drivers and nearly 30 more monitors this summer.
Bus route information should be set and shared with parents in the second or third week of August.