The School Board this afternoon will decide whether to order 10 new school buses to buttress the district's aging fleet of vehicles.
A yes vote by the board at Coral Shores today would come as a huge relief for Patrick Lefere, the district's head of Planning and Operations, who has made the bus purchase issue a priority since he was hired earlier this year.
Lefere last month presented the merits of one particular bus bid.
"There's not really intended to be any discussion, though the members will certainly be asked to vote on the contract," Lefere said.
Lefere said that most school districts try to buy at least a few buses every year, to keep a major chunk of them from becoming inoperable, or expensive to maintain, all at once.
"We're in pretty desperate need of buses," he said. "Right now, we've got 59 buses in use. Eight of these are either non-operational, or in the process of being excessed. So, that brings us down to 51 buses, to support 41 routes. That only leaves us 10 spares spread out among our four hub locations in the Keys. At any given time, buses are going to be in either scheduled, or unscheduled maintenance, so you can see how tight we are right now."
The situation is so bad, according to Lefere, that schools are no longer able to count on district buses to get their students to extra-curricular activities and field trips, though alternate means have been used to keep such outings from being cancelled.
While accepting the logic of the need for more buses, board member Ed Davidson, of District 3, wondered Monday why the district wasn't looking more closely at buses that run on alternative fuels such as propane and natural gas.
Currently, plans call for the purchase of 10, diesel-fueled Thomas Built buses, at a cost of $1.2 million. Five of these will have the standard carrying capacity of 77 pupils each. Another three will be equipped to carry students in wheelchairs, and two will be designed to carry pre-K students, with greater safety features for the youngsters.
"You really do need to rotate your stock, so they don't all age out, and become too expensive to maintain at the same time," said Davidson, known for frequently asking probing questions about district policies.
"There does not seem to be any discussion of alternative fuel, and I would like to know why," Davidson said. "I was at a meeting of the state School Board Association last week where there was a presentation about the major savings that accrue from using propane or natural gas as a fuel source. Of course, it also burns much cleaner, and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint. Both these fuels are way cheaper than diesel."
Lefere countered that for the time being, the Thomas Built buses represent the best deal for the district.
"The availability of those kinds of fuels is part of the reason we're going with the diesel," Lefere explained. "Plus, we're contracted with the county to share their fuel, and kind of piggyback on their contract. Our mechanics are used to working on these engines and these buses. For now, this purchase makes the most sense."
Lefere did say in his presentation at last month's meeting, that a better offer might be in the offing next year.
"Right now, it's less the bus and more the engine that's led to our decision," he said. "But that may change next year, as another competitor brings another option to the market."
Also this afternoon, board members will hear a presentation on the District Ancillary Facilities Study, about what to do with district-owned property that may not be needed in the future.
"We need to evaluate these properties now, for maintainability, viability and relevance to the district," Davidson said. "If we could sell some of them off at market rate and put the money into the classrooms, that's something to think about, and the question of whether or not we're going to be allowed to do that is currently before the state Department of Education. If we can, it's a game changer."