Latest APS budget offers a fiscal fountain of youth for school district’s aging bus fleet

“It certainly was a surprise to see the magnitude of some of the needs,” she said.

AURORA | With more than 184,000 miles on its odometer and an engine virtually impossible to find replacement parts for, Aurora Public Schools bus No. 1024 has motored passed usefulness.

And the 20-year-old bus isn’t alone. With an average age of 11.8 years, APS’ fleet of 138 buses is the second-oldest in the state and the oldest among metro-area districts. Nationally, school bus fleets average 9.3 years old.

But district officials say the aging fleet will get a little younger in the coming years. After several years of budget cuts to APS’ transportation department, the district pumped an extra $500,000 into the fleet this year for new buses.

20150522-Bus Fleet-Aurora, Colorado

An Aurora Public Schools bus parked at the motor pool on Friday May 22, 2015 at APS Transportation Department. Photo by Trevor L Davis/Aurora Sentinel

20150522-Bus Fleet-Aurora, Colorado

Omar Espinal, fleet mechanic, works on a school bus on Friday May 22, 2015 at APS Transportation Department. Photo by Trevor L Davis/Aurora Sentinel

20150522-Bus Fleet-Aurora, Colorado

Omar Espinal (left), fleet mechanic, works Aurora Public School Buses, on Friday May 22, 2015 at APS Transportation Department. Photo by Trevor L Davis/Aurora Sentinel

Brent Spahn, director of transportation for APS, said the extra cash this year means the department has about $1 million for new buses.

“That will buy us at least 10 new general education buses,” Spahn said. He also said he hopes the district will receive some money from Medicaid to pay for a few special-needs buses.

APS Transportation Director Brent Spahn explains how the school district will repair and replace parts of the district bus fleet

The fleet will stay at 138 buses, he said, with old ones such as No. 1024 being sold or salvaged.  

“Every bus that we put out is safe,” Brent Spahn, director of transportation for APS

In 2009, the district spent more than $7.4 million on the transportation department, but that number dipped under $6.8 million last year.

“The district leadership had to make some tough decisions on where to spend the money … But now it looks like we are going to finally start getting some more money to refresh our fleet,” Spahn said.

Spahn said he hopes to replace about 7 percent of the fleet each year going forward.

“Our bus fleet should continually get better and better each year,” he said.

reAPS Board of Education President JulieMarie Shepherd said the board had heard anecdotal stories about the fleet’s age in recent years, but it wasn’t until Spahn gave a lengthy presentation to the board in April that the scope of the woes was clear.

“It certainly was a surprise to see the magnitude of some of the needs,” she said.

While 13 of the 138 buses in the fleet are more than 20 years old, Spahn stressed that the fleet is safe.

“Every bus that we put out is safe,” he said.

Each bus passes an annual inspection mandated by the state, and Spahn said he makes sure the buses are inspected at least once more every year. If a bus doesn’t pass the inspection, it doesn’t hit the road, Spahn said.

Still, the fleet’s current condition puts a strain on the team of mechanics who maintain not the district’s 700-plus district vehicles — from sedans to lawnmowers. The fleet averages about 10 breakdowns a week, according to Spahn’s April presentation.

Plus, Spahn said, some of the aging buses simply can’t be fixed anymore. Some, like No. 1024, were made by Genesis, a company that has since gone out of business and no longer produces replacement parts.

With more than 184,000 miles on its odometer and an engine virtually impossible to find replacement parts for, Aurora Public Schools bus No. 1024 has motored passed usefulness.

Another, bus No. 1065, has more than 200,000 miles on it and needs a new transmission. Besides that, it has major rust problems. Spahn estimates it would cost about $11,000 to repair it, which is more than the 26-year-old Bluebird is worth.

Other districts, including Denver Public Schools, rely on RTD for many high school students rather than using their own fleet. Spahn said the district has explored that option and concluded it wouldn’t be a good fit for APS.

The district deploys drivers in tiers, which means a driver picks up and drops off high school students, then does the same with middle schoolers and elementary students. In the afternoon, they do the same.

Spahn said that if APS opted not to drive high school students it wouldn’t mean they could hire fewer drivers because the same number would be required to drive the middle school on elementary students on those routes.

Plus, Spahn said, the neighborhoods near Vista PEAK Preparatory and Vista PEAK Exploratory campus don’t have RTD service.

“Those two schools have a lot of kids who need the school bus,” he said.