State mandate comes as budget cuts, layoffs are anticipated

The Estacada School District continues to face declining enrollment, resulting budget cuts, bad publicity regarding its graduation rate and looming teacher layoffs. But now, on top of all that, the district has to replace nearly its entire bus fleet thanks to a new state law.

Members of the district’s board of directors were made aware of the issue during its meeting on Wednesday, March 13.

A presentation on it was given minutes after the budget committee heard a bleak update on the district’s finances from Business Manager Donna Cancio.

A new state law states that all school buses with diesel engines operated in Oregon must be retrofitted with 2007 equivalent engines and 2007 fine particulate matter capture technology by Jan. 1, 2017, or replaced with school buses manufactured on or after Jan. 1, 2007, by Jan. 1, 2025.

There are 30 buses in the district’s fleet. Two of them are from 2007 and two are from 2011. All of the rest, however, will have to be replaced or retrofitted in order for the district to comply with the law.

“The timing could not be worse in terms of additional cost,” district operations manager Gary Lewis said. “And we’re not sure what the final bill will end up being.”

Assistance may be available, though. Several school districts have received grants that will cover the cost for most of their retrofit needs. They include Salem-Keizer, Beaverton, David Douglas, Centennial, Hillsboro and Sherwood.

“We’re starting to look at what our options are and putting together a long-range plan that is a combination of retrofits and purchasing some new buses,” Lewis said. “We are also doing research on potential grant money out there that could help us offset some of these costs.”

Most of the district’s fleet consists of buses that hold 72 to 74 passengers. Of those, 14 are from 2000-07 and 11 are from between 1996-99. There also are a few fans and mid-sized vehicles.

“We’re just going to have to see what works for our needs, but we also have to have enough flexibility. Routes obviously change from year to year,” Lewis said. “We’re in the process right now of inventorying and looking at what we have in our current fleet and what buses most need replacement. We’ll be meeting again right after spring break to narrow those options down and put a plan together.”

The state reimburses the district for most of its transportation costs, and districts have time to gradually meet the mandates of the law.

“We do get reimbursed 70 percent by the state for our transportation costs, but that occurs down the road. Our costs this year don’t get reimbursed until next year,” Lewis said. “We have time, but we want to get started on it. We don’t want to go and purchase 10 or 20 buses per year.”

A preliminary plan for handling the school bus mandate should be ready in time for the May school board meeting.

“That’s our goal, anyway,” Lewis said.

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