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District retiring buses

Fifteen of South Kitsap School District’s 75 buses are at least six years older than most members of the high school’s senior class.

Another 23 have been hauling kids longer than any student in South Kitsap’s elementary schools has been alive.

Four have been around since the Nixon administration.

More importantly, nine buses — five of which are being replaced this upcoming year — do not comply with modern safety standards and may not adequately protect their passengers in case of an accident.

The money for this project comes from the four-year school levy passed last year. The levy budget calls for 44 buses to be replaced over the next four years.

In 1977, a federal law was passed requiring bus seats to be “compartmentalized,” meaning a seat back needed to be high enough to prevent whiplash, padded sufficiently to cushion passengers flung forward by a sudden stop and set close enough to the seat behind it to minimize the distance a child’s body traveled before colliding with it.

Pre-’77 buses had seat backs that only came midway up the average teenager’s back and were trimmed with aluminum tubing along the top and sides.

“These are great for chipping out little teeth,” said district driver trainer Ken Haddenham, patting the metal seat elements.

Most school buses have a maximum life expectancy of 20 years, although smaller “mini-buses” can have a life expectancy of as little as eight years. Right now, 33 buses — nearly half the district’s fleet — have reached or surpassed their individual expectancies. Bob Dalton, transportation shop manager, said after a bus hits the end of its life, it becomes more and more expensive to repair and maintain.

Although the federal government subsidizes a school districts’ bus purchases, the subsidy is doled out in payments over the life of the vehicle. When the bus reaches its projected maximum age, the payments stop.

Although the subsidy only covers the lowest bid price for the most basic models of buses, it still covers a significant portion of each bus’ purchase price.

The subsidy on a class D, 78-seater is $65,300 — more than two-thirds the $91,600 price tag.

The district plans to buy five of these class D buses this year, which will replace the five oldest buses in the fleet. Another four pre-77 buses will be phased out in 2003. If the replacement schedule goes as planned, every bus built before 1980 will be put out to pasture by 2004.

Cost isn’t the only obstacle to the district holding onto its older buses.

The oldest bus, vintage 1970, is now more than a decade past its life expectancy and still on the road. The district’s six 1978 buses comply with compartmentalizing guidelines and are only four years beyond their expectancies — relatively healthy considering 33 buses are at or beyond that point in their own lifespans.

What these pre-1980 buses have in common is their manufacturer — Gillig. The reason the school district has no Gillig buses less than 24 years old is the company stopped making school transports in the early 1980s. That means when any of the district’s 15 Gillig buses need parts, mechanics must dip into an ever-dwindling well of salvage parts for a replacement.

“It’s hard to get parts when the company’s out of service,” Haddenham said.

The district will also be spending $240,000 on mini-buses to replace the 15-seater vans now being used.

These large-capacity vans favored by churches and school facilities have made headlines lately due to their tendency to roll over in accidents. The district used them because it could not afford to buy similar-capacity buses, which have stricter safety standards and a lower center of gravity than the mega-vans.

“They’re not designed to haul children in the first place,” Dalton said.

Several of the retired buses will be kept on as emergency back-up transportation. The rest will be sold at auction after the district insignia is blacked out.

The new buses, which should be ordered later this month, will arrive in seven to eight months and start service soon afterward.

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