In August, 2009, Walla Walla (Wash.) Public Schools broke ground on a project that has lowered operational costs for local school districts: the Southeast Washington Transportation Cooperative facility. The cooperative provides discount school bus maintenance and repair service as well as school bus inspection support, a bus driver training program, preventive maintenance and recordkeeping services.
The cooperative provides these services for its three member districts: Walla Walla Public Schools, the host district, Prescott (Wash.) School District and Dixie (Wash.) School District. Each member district has equal say in decision-making. The cooperative works with TW Clark construction, the general contractor, and more than 10 other local construction firms that are employed as subcontractors.
The facility is 15,000 square feet and includes five 20-foot by 60-foot stalls; a shop office; parts and tool storage areas; and a meeting room. The shop, which is the largest portion of the building, can accommodate five buses, with 50 in the lot, and a fueling island.
The cooperative typically maintains a total of 55 buses for the three districts, and 37 service vehicles and all of the grounds equipment for Walla Walla annually.
Creating the cooperative
Walla Walla needed one other member district to form the cooperative and get the matching dollars from Washington state to build the facility; the Dixie and Prescott school districts stepped up. The districts began discussing the project in 2008, and started the process to get it approved in 2009.
Stemming from the need to save area districts money without asking for more local tax dollars, Walla Walla created a funding plan for the $8 million project. In response to a request from the community to limit bond measures, the school district used $3.4 million in state matching funds from a local construction project to fund the cooperative and a new support services facility, and generated a 90% state match, or, another $4 million, to the district from the Transportation Cooperative project.
“As far as running a bond for new support services facilities, it’s almost impossible to pass; the general public will vote for school buildings but not for support services,” Steve Olson, transportation director, Walla Walla Public Schools, says. “And most transportation facilities in Washington state are old and decrepit. So, it’s nice that the state has been supportive in matching dollars. [That] makes it easier for districts to build new facilities.”
Additionally, taxpayers are benefiting from the cooperative saving school districts money on transportation costs. Member districts are then able to put those funds back into the schools, thwarting the need for future tax increases.
The substantial savings has enabled the district to add educators in the classrooms, creating smaller group sizes and one-on-one instruction, Wegner says, and has minimized the extra dollars Dixie SD had to spend out of its general fund for transportation.
Brett Cox, superintendent, Prescott School District (SD), says that in addition to paying a significantly lower shop rate when taking buses in for repairs, the district gets same-day service. These benefits have kept the district from having to employ a full-time bus mechanic.
Cox adds that Prescott SD, which serves two schools, takes advantage of services such as oil changes, brake work, and transmission and engine repairs for the six buses it runs on daily routes. Prescott’s membership lets it keep a smaller inventory of parts.
The cooperative also delivers significant eco-friendly benefits to districts, such as not having to worry about its waste stream. “I do not have to inventory a lot of consumables such as motor oil, and transmission fluid and antifreeze,” Cox says.
The membership was convenient for Dixie SD, Superintendent Mark Wegner says, because it already had to take all of its buses to the city of Walla Walla for maintenance, for which it was spending up to $10,000 annually. Cutting that down to one-third of the cost made a significant difference.
“We did not have a certified mechanic working here, so that helped,” he explains. “Our fleet fit right into their rotation. Maintenance has improved.”
Another benefit is that the employees who run Dixie SD’s bus garage now have extra support. The cooperative has added seats in the buses, and even taken care of smaller tasks, such as providing fire extinguishers and changing windshield wipers.