Watauga County School System Welcomes Three New Members, First Of Their Kind

Last Updated on June 7, 2016 11:02 am

The Watauga County School District is welcoming three new members, but unlike their most recent predecessors they will have far reaching impacts regarding weather and the effects of it.

Three brand new 2017 model school buses will take to the local roads starting this summer, and they bring with them new engineer developments to help combat the impacts of corrosion and rust. On Tuesday of last week (May 31,2016) was able to spend some time with Watauga County Schools Transportation Director Jeff Lyons to learn more about the new members of the fleet. What makes these buses a bit more unique is not only the number of buses the county received in one year, but Lyons was able to provide input into the development of the “Mountain Package” contained within the buses.

First a little background. North Carolina public school buses are replaced at 20 years of age by model year or 250,000 miles per new rules set in place in 2013. Prior to that school districts had to replace buses after 200,000 miles or 20 years of age by model year. A 50,000 mile difference between the set of rules may not sound like much to some, but toss in the effects of High Country winters and it greatly impacts the longevity of buses.

Watauga County has 41 total buses on daily routes, transporting about 1800 children per day. School transportation departments are mostly funded based on the number of buses running per 100 kids. School buses come from state funds, while activity buses must be purchased by local county funds. On average Watauga, and most High Country counties, get one new bus a year but that is not always a guarantee. Considering that 4 buses are 10% of the Watauga fleet, getting three in one year is quite notable.

For the first time the new buses have the “Mountain Package” included, which is an anti-corrosion package that Lyons and others had input in developing. Over the last six to seven years Thomas, the maker of the buses and a North Carolina born and based company, listen to the input from directors impacted in the mountain counties to develop a solution to the winter problem of salt/brine damage.

Lyons notes that when he first began working in school transportation the replacement criteria was 16 years or 160,000 miles. And as tough as it was then, with the new rules in effect he adds “It's hard for us to make a bus last that long, most of the standard repairs we have to make is due to rust.” His department has been seeing 6 to 8 years worth of corrosion damage in 4 to 5 years due to salt brine and salt. Some of the most prone areas lost due to corrosion are doors, step wells and underneath around the wheels. Lyons says he and his team will not start seeing the results from the Mountain Package for about 3 years, but this is an attempt to help be more cost effective.

Schools in Madison, Mitchell, Yancey, Avery, Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany are eligible to get new buses with the “Mountain Package” at an extra cost of around $2800 to the state.

Dr. Scott Elliott, Superintendent Watauga County Schools, tells, “We are grateful for the new buses sent to us by the state. Just like with our own personal vehicles, the mountain roads and harsh weather conditions take a toll on our school buses. It is very important that we have the safest buses possible for the over 502,000 miles they travel in our county each school year.” He added, “Whether it is down to Triplett at below 1900 feet or on our longest route that goes three times each day to Beech Mountain at over 5500 feet of elevation, our buses are by far the safest mode of transportation to and from school every day.”

And though the impacts of the Mountain Package will not be seen by most riders there are some items that those aboard may notice and feel. The new buses are equipped with a more comprehensive air conditioning system for both the entire bus and the driver area. The ceiling is also designed to allow sound to be absorbed into it, as oppose to bouncing off with just a metal ceiling thus creating more noise. Visibility has been improved for drivers with a one piece windshield, compared to the two piece design.

The 66 passenger buses are built with a Freightliner chassis, Thomas body and diesel Cummins engines. The new buses are inspected and will begin their service during summer school

As previously noted school activity buses have to be purchased with local funds. Dr. Elliott says, “We have a ways to go to catch up on modernizing our fleet of white activity buses. Watauga County has purchased only 7 new white buses in the last 30 years.” He went on to say that, “We have developed a plan to budget for our future activity bus needs so that we can upgrade the buses that transport our students to athletic competitions and field trips outside the county.”

“We are very fortunate to have an outstanding team of bus mechanics and 46 drivers who are highly skilled at what they do. I bet very few people would want to drive some of our most remote roads, much less in a large bus with precious cargo aboard. Our folks are great at what they do.” Elliott concluded.

Photos: Kenneth Reece

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