Sales statistics gathered for the latest School Bus Fleet Fact Book indicate sales of Type A, C, and D buses dropped overall by 15.5% compared to the previous year. - Photo by Tom Corbett via Unsplash

Sales statistics gathered for the latest School Bus Fleet Fact Book indicate sales of Type A, C, and D buses dropped overall by 15.5% compared to the previous year.

Photo by Tom Corbett via Unsplash

The upward bounce isn’t here for school bus manufacturers. Yet.

In 2021, based on data collected by School Bus Fleet, sales of the three primary types of buses – A, C, and D – dropped overall by 15.5% compared to the previous year. Manufacturers reporting to SBF sold a total of 30,582 buses in the United States and Canada (down from more than 35,000 sold in 2020).

Especially hard hit, it seems, were sales for the largest Type D buses, which dropped by 50.5%.

But how surprising is that, really, when we reported in October that preliminary data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that spending on pupil transportation (including school buses) fell 5.7% in 2020?

Stephen Wheeler, a supervisory statistician in the Census Bureau’s economic reimbursable surveys division, blamed the pandemic for “two areas that had 1-year declines (student transportation and food services” than other elementary and secondary school categories.        

No matter what, it’s no time for school districts to slip backward when it comes to funding. Many are offering raises, retention bonuses, and improved benefits, which is a good sign. But there’s certainly a concern that, with pupil transportation spending dropping in 2020, we might see movement toward further belt tightening.                                                                                                             

COVID-19 gave many industries a punch – pupil transportation proved no exception. The pandemic left bus fleets parked or in limited service, delivering lunches or homework, or providing Wi-Fi access. However, with the development of vaccines and boosters, teachers, staff, and students in many school districts returned to in-person learning this fall.

Challenges remain for school districts, though. Does it make much sense for districts to expand their fleets when they can’t retain bus drivers who leave the profession, blaming low pay, minimal benefits, or poor behavior by some of their passengers? It’s been so bad that some states temporarily relied on the National Guard to take the wheel.

Manufacturers are struggling too, due to semiconductor shortages and supply chain problems. But we’ve also seen potential for greater demand for electric buses, from the promise of federal infrastructure funds in the United States to The Lion Electric receiving a purchase order for 1,000 units contingent on funding from the Canadian government.

It remains to be seen whether the recently discovered omicron variant poses any new threats to the rebound we’ve all been counting on – or to the continuation of in-person schooling that relies on the big yellow bus.

The most recent bright spot: President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, signed into law in November, which earmarks $5 billion for investment in low- and zero-emission school buses – electric, propane, and compressed natural gas - meant to replace aging diesel fleets. Maybe that’ll provide stimulus for buying new buses.

But manufacturers still need the microchips that make those buses run, and districts must find – and retain – devoted people who are willing to take on one of the most difficult jobs within the school ecosystem.

No matter what, it’s no time for school districts to slip backward when it comes to funding. Many are offering raises, retention bonuses, and improved benefits, which is a good sign. But there’s certainly a concern that, with pupil transportation spending dropping in 2020, we might see movement toward further belt tightening.

Pat Schofill, president elect of the National Association of School District Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), warns against cutting money in response to the census results.

“Transportation spending is an important component of any school district’s budget,” Schofill told SBF in October. “Given the many different ways in which school districts handled the pandemic, it’s difficult to quantify expectations around what we would have or should have expected. The most important takeaway, however, is that school districts should not look to reduce their transportation spending based on their 2020 numbers and should instead look to their 2019 numbers and some type of adjustments based on what they know now. Now is not the time to reduce transportation spending.”

Let’s keep looking for signs of promise in the year to come.

Author

Wes Platt
Wes Platt

Executive Editor

Wes Platt joined Bobit in 2021 as executive editor of School Bus Fleet Magazine.

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Wes Platt joined Bobit in 2021 as executive editor of School Bus Fleet Magazine.

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