RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Wake County schools want millions of dollars to fix school failing school bus engines in the coming years, but the Board of Education may face a roadblock in accessing funding for that particular project.
Board members submitted a request Tuesday for $4,964,143 in unanticipated transportation expenses for the 2018-19 school year. That includes about $1.4 million for replacing problematic engines which are in about 250 of Wake County’s fleet of 900 available school buses. There are currently about 750 routes as the Wake County Public School System continues to face a shortage of drivers.
“There’s no indication that this is a matter of safety. This is a matter of emissions, is what precipitated the issue,” school board chairman Jim Martin said. “Engines are wearing out before they are intended to.”
Most of these engine failures are happening well before the expected lifetime or mileage of the buses. The problem occurs in three model years of one particular bus from the early 2000s. Transportation advisers for Wake schools said there were emission law changes and diesel technology changes at that time, and some of the diesel engines from that era are breaking down.
Martin, a chemistry professor at North Carolina State, said the main issue appears to involve overheating. He said heat will break down metal and plastic components which are not engineered to withstand high temperatures so they wear out.
The $1.4 million is expected to replace engines in about 50 school buses this fiscal year, with the remaining 200 buses needing new engines in the next few school years. An adviser at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting said replacements can cost $35,000 each.
The school board also wants an extra $3.5 million dollars for transporting special needs and homeless students. Wake County schools has contracts with other drivers for its Exceptional Children transportation. Those students do not take traditional buses but instead ride in vans, shorter buses, and other handicap-accessible vehicles.
Board members said the overall transportation budget is $80 million a year for about 80,000 students. Approximately 20 percent of that budget goes to the Exceptional Children contracts, which only serves about 4,200 students.
The $4,964,143 is extremely close to $4,955,899 which the Wake County Commission has in an enrollment reserve fund; the money there would cover 99.83 percent of the transportation request.
“We asked about that, we had discussions with the County Commissioner board leadership and the county manager, and all agreed that (the formal request Tuesday) was the process we should follow,” the school board chairman said.
“In terms of the net (budget), normally this would have been taken care of in our budget, but because of the strange conditions that were set on the budget last year, we have to operate under a different structure.”
The enrollment reserve fund is money held by the county when the school system fell short of its expected enrollment for 2018-19. The commission recently changed the way it distributes money to the school system.
“We can’t use that money for anything other than enrollment, because that’s what they put into the resolution last year,” Martin said.
“That kind of a budgetary hold back has never been used in the past, and we hope will never be used in the future. It’s not an efficient budgeting strategy for an organization as complex as a school system,” he said.
“We no longer have a bank account because we’re told we can’t have that bank account. So now we have to go to our bankers and say ‘Hey, here’s the need. We need to pay it out of whatever account that you want us to pay it out of.'”
County Commissioner Matt Calabria said the commission has not gotten details with a breakdown of what the unanticipated transportation expenses entail. Most of what he has heard thus far is from media reports, but he said the school board let commissioners know this request was coming.
“We had a general sense as to what the ask might be, but we are still in the process of gathering the details and our staff is going to be looking at the numbers and seeing what, if anything, we might be able to do to help,” Calabria said.
“We don’t want them to get into the habit of managing our budget. We don’t want to get into the habit of managing the school system, and so it’s always a matter of making sure we accept our co-equal roles.”
Calabria said the contingency fund was set up to make sure Wake County adequately funds growth, and there are some county employees reviewing the request to see what source of revenue could address the need.
He said it is important to make sure buses stay operational, but there can’t be a quick decision.
“We obviously don’t want kids to be stranded on the side of the road. We want to make sure that our bus systems work appropriately, and especially considering that we’re dealing with some vulnerable populations, it’s all the more important that they have what they need.
“It’s important to balance costs and benefits. If you look only at the costs or only at the benefits, you’re not getting the whole picture. We know the school system has needs. Our job is to match it up with our financials and see what we can do, and we’ll respond from there.”
Kevin Harrison with the North Carolina Department of Instruction’s Transportation Services said the state does not have funding to pay for engine replacements in this circumstance. Some smaller districts may be eligible for assistance, but not Wake County.
“There will be contingency funding for smaller counties, where expenses are unusual. $10,000 for a bus repair can be hard for a local school system to make up when your budget is so small,” Harrison said.
“A good example of contingency is hurricane funding. For schools that now have 200 additional homeless students that they need to transport. Or a county where someone who was uninsured ran into their vehicle. That’s unexpected funding, not things you can predict. Tornadoes are things we can usually fund,” he said.
“When you get to very large districts, you would expect some degree of problems with vehicles that are expensive to replace, because you’ve got lots of them. There will be failures. There will be some funding for that this year, as there is every year, but for $1.4 million or $5 million to bail them out of a contract transportation hole, that’s a lot of money that they’re coming up short on.”
The state funded school bus engine replacements specifically with a three-year program from 2014-17. Harrison said the state had a surplus due to low gas prices, as they budgeted much higher for fuel when prices were high earlier in the decade.
He said the most Wake County requested for a single year during the program was $250,000.