School district could contract with charter buses amid ongoing staffing shortages￼
The board also approved a pilot program for long-term energy, cost savings on its buses
With persevering staffing challenges in its transportation department, the Eagle County Schools Board of Education approved a resolution allowing the district to contract charter buses for certain sports and activities.
“We do have a need for it, just with the reduction of drivers that we have and the shortages, we are having to rely on charter buses to help us with some of our athletic activity field trips,” said Sandy Farrell, the district’s chief operating officer, at the Wednesday, Nov. 16 school board meeting.
The local district started the year with a deficit of 13 drivers (having only 17 of its 30 positions filled), which meant a reduction in its overall pick-up and drop-off routes as well as the cancellation of some field trips and away game transportation of athletics.
On Monday, Nov. 21, Matt Miano, the district’s chief communications officer, said that while “the district continues to work through staffing challenges and vacancies have remained at about the same level they’ve been at.”
He added that the district continues to coordinate closely with schools on activities and events, with only a few having been canceled because of transportation issues.
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“We’ve been able to complete most of (the activities and events),” he said.
With this challenge persisting, state statute requires the board to approve via resolution, the ability of the district to hire charter buses for short-term drives. Per the resolution, charter buses may only be rented “for the transportation of students to school-related events but not to and from school or school to school.”
Last Wednesday, Farrell said that this resolution’s requirement is related to students’ safety as “charter buses are a little bit different than school buses.”
“They’re considered to be less safe than what a school bus is and they also are being driven by people who are not district employees and so you have different people who would be drivers for those,” Farrell said.
Farrell said that the district intends to vet any charter company to ensure the quality of service as well as that “we feel comfortable taking our students on them.”
Miano said on Monday that the district will still “most definitely” use the district’s own transportation services “as much as we are able and would only look to charter a service as a last resort other than cancellation.”
“Putting this resolution in place simply allows us to pursue this option if need be,” he added.
There is also a significantly higher cost associated with hiring a charter service for these trips. On Wednesday, Farrell said that quotes for an upcoming trip to transport students from Edwards to Grand Junction came in around “$3,000 on average.”
In comparison, she said the district would quote around $600 for it to make the trip itself.
Ted Long, the board’s vice president, said the matter “seems pretty straightforward.”
“I know speech and debate goes to Grand Junction and a lot of other places, (and) it’s tough to say to kids after they’ve been working so hard and rehearsed and everything, ‘Sorry, we can’t take you.’ I know that happened a couple of times last year and maybe this fall, there’s been a couple of issues with that,” he said.
Cost-savings with renewable natural gas
At the same board meeting, the school board approved a new memorandum of understanding to participate in a pilot program that could bring long-term cost-saving measures to the transportation department, while also reducing its carbon footprint.
The 5-month pilot program — coordinated with DEMI Diesel Displacer and Ingevity — will involve installing a fuel conversion system to six of the district’s diesel-run buses. Once installed, the fuel conversion systems allow a bus to run strictly on diesel or switch to a duel fuel using natural gas.
“The percentage of (Renewable Natural Gas) to diesel ranges from 30-50% natural gas, and the gas is supplemental to reduce the diesel full consumption and emissions,” according to Farrell’s report of the program in the board packet.
Renewable natural gas can come from either dairy farms and cow manure or waste from a landfill. According to DEMI’s website, “as organic material decomposes it emits methane. That methane can be (and is) captured and cleaned in order to power vehicles such as your local school bus fleet.”
The cost to participate in the program is $45,000 (or $15,000 a piece for the three fueling appliances required), an amount that would be refunded at the end of the pilot should the district not decide to move forward with implementation.
The benefits, Farrell said, are two-fold. The first is cost-savings of around $3.50 per gallon of gas, with up to 10% increased fuel efficiency, which could equate to savings in the “thousands per bus per year.”
“We can purchase the natural gas at a much cheaper rate than diesel, so there’s a huge cost saving to this for the long term, moving forward, she added.”
Secondly, DEMI reports that it can reduce the carbon footprint of a bus by up to 50%.
Farrell added that the district did look into the conversion of the district’s fleet to electric buses. However, she said it is not currently a viable option for the district given the terrain, length of routes, current quality of electric buses and their performance on the road.
“They just really haven’t evolved far enough along really to be operationally sufficient for our area,” Farrell said.
The district’s bus drivers recently got to try out a converted bus, with rave reviews, Farrell reported.
“When they did drive them, they said the power that they had was even greater than it was with the diesel, so the performance is also enhanced,” she said.
Following the five-month program, which Farrell said would likely come before the end of the school year, the district and board will decide whether it wants to move forward with a full-fleet conversion. Following the board’s approval, the equipment is expected to be installed on-site and on six buses over the December holiday break.