The City Council's Finance Committee will recommend the city borrow $2.7 million to buy new buses.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Three years after originally hoped, the School Department is asking the city to borrow the funds needed to replace its aging bus fleet.
The City Council's Finance Committee voted favorably on Thursday to advance an authorization by Mayor Daniel Bianchi for the city to borrow up to $2,766,075 to purchase 43 new school buses.
The city will trade in its current batch of 52 new buses, purchased nine years ago through a bond on which Pittsfield still owes $1.5 million over the next six years. The School Department had originally proposed this replacement in spring 2011, at a cost then estimated at $4.3 million, but the planning suffered several setbacks before finally being expedited earlier this year with the help of a specialist brought in by Superintendent Jason McCandless.
Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke told the councilors that with efficient busing strategy, the 43 new vehicles should be able to economically transport the 3,500 students currently being transported in the district.
"About 56 percent of those who could ride the bus, do ride the bus," said Behnke, who said that in addition to those eligible based on distance, others pay extra for the transportation service, amounting to about $20,000 in revenue. In part, it's a drop in this optional paid ridership that has allowed for the consolidation to a smaller fleet.
Behnke said in the first year, the school department plans to pay on the debt with $200,000 from its upcoming budget proposal and $370,000 stored up in its transportation revolving account.
"What's the plan for the second, third, fourth and fifth year?" asked Councilor Kathleen Amuso, a former School Committee member.
When the City Council authorized the bond to purchase the district's current fleet of buses in 2005, it was with the express stipulation that the School Committee would fund an annual line item for the future replacement of buses. This is a challenge the School Department is now finally preparing to ease into, in the fiscal 2015 budget.
In subsequent years, Behnke said, the School Department will need to commit the full amount of more than a half-million entirely from its annual operating budget to pay for the buses.
Amuso asked if this meant an automatic increase of that size in the department's budget request, but Behnke said a "solid plan" of how this expense will be structured into the budget had not yet been developed.
"If we were to take it out of what we have right now, it would amount to a cut of $370,000 to the school budget," said Behnke. "I certainly hope that we'll find a way to finance this without doing that."
In addition to aspects of the purchase, the five-member subcommittee questioned the assistant superintendent on a range of issues pertaining to the district's school bus program overall.
In terms of the future of the new buses, Behnke said there would be a need to reassess in three to four years, based on fluctuations in the bus market, as to whether it were more economical to replace the buses in cycles, or all at once again at a later date. While some savings would be seen on the maintenance costs of the newer buses initially, after five years those costs would again begin to rise.
"Going forward, I would really like to see this done on a more regular basis," said Councilor Christopher Connell, recommending a comprehensive review of the situation every two to three years.
Ongoing review to make sure that operations were run as efficiently as possible was also strongly recommended.
"I think we need to not only look at buying new buses, but how we're busing the kids," said Mazzeo. "We need to make sure we're being as economical with these buses as we can."