HANCOCK COUNTY — Standing in the Greenfield-Central School Corp. transportation office in Maxwell earlier this week, new bus driver Jessica Hinton clutched her paperwork and prepared for her first day on the road.
Out in the lot, Hinton’s big yellow ride – a 2007 bus with 78 seats built by International Corp. – sat silently before it began chugging and charging Thursday through its 180-day race to the end of school on May 29.
Hinton’s ritual was repeated more than 170 times this week as the county’s bus fleets hit the road for the first time. Before they did, transportation directors and state inspectors spent part of the summer checking everything from tires to turn signals to make sure the buses were safe.
And they cover a lot of miles. Depending on the route, G-C school buses will average 11,000 to 13,000 miles annually on the way to a fleet mileage total that soon will top 3 million miles, according to figures compiled from a state database.
“Those are hard miles, too,” said Bill Redmon, G-C’s director of transportation. “It’s start and stop, and you’ve got to get it going. If you get four or five miles to the gallon, you’re lucky.”
Throughout the county’s four public school districts, the bus fleets have racked up nearly 13 million miles.
Indiana State Police inspection records show Southern Hancock’s 42-bus fleet has logged the most: nearly 3.8 million miles. Mt. Vernon’s 38 buses have run nearly 3.5 million miles.
Greenfield-Central, with the county’s largest bus fleet at 60, tallied just under 3 million miles. Eastern Hancock’s 31 buses have logged about 2.6 million miles.
Mt. Vernon puts the most miles on its buses, records show, with an average bus mileage of just over 90,000, followed closely by Southern Hancock, with an average mileage of 89,558 on its buses.
“We can usually get between 130,000 to 160,000 miles over the lifetime of a bus,” Redmon said. “Sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more.”
As part of its comprehensive tax relief bill in 2008, the Indiana Legislature allowed school corporations to extend their school bus replacement plans from 10 to 12 years, essentially mandating the districts to replace their buses once they’ve been on the road for a dozen years.
Funds for local bus replacement plans are raised in each district by a property tax levy, and giving school corporations 24 additional months on the lives of their buses was an effort to save schools and Hoosier property owners money.
“I believe the Legislature passed that bill for the tax savings rather than anything to do with the actual purchase of buses,” said EH Superintendent Randy Harris.
Harris said EH has welcomed the extra time before replacing a vehicle that costs anywhere from $90,000 to $100,000, and the district does everything it can to run them for the full 12 years.
“You might have a few exceptions,” he said. “You might have a bus that just breaks down after eight years, and you have to replace it.”
Redmon, who this year enters his 26th year overseeing G-C’s fleet, said running modern buses through a 12-year life cycle is not a problem, but after that, maintenance can begin to get expensive.
“You can start to get into the high-dollar stuff,” Redmon said.
“After 12 years, they start becoming labor intensive,” said Steve Satterly, who oversees Southern Hancock schools’ fleet. “You begin having to send it out to get things like transmissions done, and that usually becomes more costly.”
So, like the old beater that begins to nick owners for nickels and dimes, it’s better just to trade it in for a new model, transportation officials say.
Though the new 12-year plan might save districts money in replacement costs, it can spike the budget line for repairs as well.
Southern Hancock, which hopes to put two new buses on routes within the next month, was caught out two years ago when the engines on three buses failed.
“If we had been on a 10-year replacement, they would have been gone,” said Southern Hancock Assistant Superintendent Bob Yoder. “But all three motors gave out, and that’s a $21,000 bill in repairs, and that’s a killer.
The outlying districts serving the county’s rural areas don’t have the advantage of running city streets like those in Greenfield.
“You can’t run buses down these country roads for 12 years and expect them to hold up,” Yoder said. “Safety is not an issue; it’s just maintaining them.”
Safety, however, is a priority for local transportation directors, over and above keeping the fleet on the road.
State law requires that buses be inspected annually, and the Indiana State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division visits each district’s fleet and closely inspects the buses, officials say.
“It’s a lot like a military inspection,” Redmon said. “They get on their creepers and get under the bus to check the exhaust, the linkages, and all the lines. They go inside and out, and they don’t miss much of anything.”
In addition to the annual inspection, the buses are regularly maintained at about every 200 hours, and prior to leaving the lot each day, drivers run through a 60-item checklist covering everything from air brakes to emergency exits, Redmon said.
Those inspections require drivers like Hinton to know just about everything there is to know about a school bus.
“It’s not a walk in the park,” Redmon said about the school bus driver’s learning curve.
Hinton has been training on and off since December, she said. She’s run obstacle courses in her bus and even parallel parked it.
“We run them all over the place,” Redmon said.
After two years of substitute teaching, Hinton is ready to do something else in the schools.
The studying is over, the tests are behind her and her ride has been cleared by all the inspectors and wrench-turners.
It’s time to take it to the highway.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she said.
Kristy Deer of the Daily Reporter staff contributed to this story.
CHECK THE BUS:
The state of Indiana has a website you can visit to check the status of your child’s school bus. The database lists buses by number, and reports list their manufacturer, age, mileage and other data. If the Indiana State Police inspection indentified problems, those are listed as well. The database can accessed at https://secure.in.gov/ISP/BusInspections/Public/Index