Red ink is flowing freely in the halls of corporate America. Almost every day there's a media report about another large U.S. company being forced to lay off hundreds, if not thousands, of employees. With apologies to those newly unemployed, this is good news for the school bus industry; recruiting and retaining bus drivers is easier when the jobless rate is high. For the most part, however, the continuing slide of the economy is bad news for education in general, as well as its related services, such as transportation. And it appears that the financial gurus who last year predicted that the economic downturn would bottom out this spring were wrong. Despite Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's numerous interest-rate interventions, the economy continues to sputter. Some of the financial gurus are now saying that the recession could last well into next year.
In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of school buses are beginning to wend their way through urban streets, suburbs and rural highways as the 2001-02 school year gets underway. The question, it seems, is how the faltering economy will affect the approximately 23.5 million children who ride buses to school each day as well as the people who manage, maintain and drive these buses. The concern, of course, is that the sputtering U.S. economic machine will spill oil in all directions, almost assuredly contaminating the well that provides education funding. Although warning bells about revenue shortfalls and ensuing spending adjustments have been sounded in some states, verifiable tales of plundered transportation programs have been few. Few but not non-existent. In North Carolina, for example, a state budget shortfall has prompted lawmakers to support an appropriations plan that will devastate the state's school bus purchasing program. Instead of allocating funding for the purchase of 550 buses for the 2001-02 school year, legislators are considering a plan that would buy only 150 buses. Instead of providing $29 million for new buses, politicians are offering only $5 million. That's a difference of $24 million, or approximately 400 buses. Fortunately, the state replaced 1,022 buses over the past year, so the impact of the cutback will be softened, according to Derek Graham, North Carolina's pupil transportation director.
The school transportation industry should take note, however, of North Carolina's experience. Other states could be forced into similarly unpleasant situations. School transportation managers should be taking a close look at their fleets and determining how long they can safely operate their program without anticipated fleet replacement funding. Now more than ever, school bus garage managers should be ensuring that preventive maintenance is completed according to schedule. Older buses in the fleet may be called upon to perform post-retirement services and need to be in the best possible shape. Of course, if funding is available, purchasing new school buses makes more sense than retaining post-lifecycle vehicles. New buses have engineering advances and ergonomic improvements that make them quieter, more comfortable and reliable and less polluting than older models. Clinging to buses that are past their prime is not an advisable strategy, unless the funding well runs dry. In any case, safety is your foremost concern. Do whatever is necessary to safe-guard your passengers, drivers and the community. Funding shortfalls come and go, usually on a cyclical basis, but money should never be the linchpin in how you satisfy the safety needs of your operation. Have a wonderful, safe school year.