School bus study calls for better security, sharing maintenance

SARANAC LAKE – A study of the Saranac Lake Central School District’s $1.4 million transportation system says the district should better police the refueling of its buses, look for grants to buy hybrid-powered buses and consider maintaining buses for other school districts.

Those are just three of the more than 15 short- and long-term recommendations in the 32-page study, conducted earlier this year by Transportation Advisory Services, a consulting firm based in Walworth. The study was outlined to the district’s board of education last month.

“Overall, it appears the district is providing a responsive, high-quality student transportation service to the community,” reads the study’s introduction.

The district commissioned the $6,500 study in April. The consultants collected financial reports, bus route information and other documents from school officials. TAS also conducted an on-site visit over two days in May.

Using 20 buses, the district transports 1,100 students to four buildings, plus another 100 students to two non-public schools and the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton Board of Cooperative Educational Services facility on state Route 3 outside the village. The district also provides bus transportation for sports and field trips. Thirty percent of the district’s transportation expenses are reimbursed by the state.

The study’s recommendations are broken into different sections. In the “fleet” section, TAS’ short-term recommendations are for the district to equip all its buses with digital cameras.

“Having access to digital recordings of bus incidents protects both drivers and innocent students,” the report reads.

However, district Transportation Supervisor Lenny Barker said the consultants based that recommendation on some misinformation. He said all the district’s buses are already equipped with high-definition digital cameras and hard drives. Larger buses have two cameras while smaller buses have one, Barker said. He said the cameras have proved to be valuable.

“If a driver comes in and has a concern regarding a student, or if a parent calls with a concern about the bus ride, it only takes me five minutes to pull out the hard drive and view it on my computer,” he said.

As a precaution against fuel theft and vandalism, TAS also says the district should consider installing security cameras at its refueling station at the school bus garage on state Route 3, between Bloomingdale and Saranac Lake, or invite police agencies to refuel on the site.

“This can serve as a deterrent to crime in the area,” the report reads.

Barker said the district hasn’t had any problems with theft of fuel. The bus garage’s diesel fuel system is operated by a key-card security system while gasoline has to be turned on and off inside the building, he said.

In the long term, the study says the district should continue to purchase two new buses per year but also pursue grant funding for hybrid diesel/electric buses.

Although he hasn’t had any experience with hybrid buses, Barker he’s skeptical whether they could work here in the cold North Country.

“We find the diesels are the best route to go for our climate conditions,” Barker said.

In an analysis of its bus routing, the study notes that the district uses a double trip system based on staggered bell times at its schools. In other words, buses are used for two trips – one for middle and high school students, one for elementary school students – each morning and afternoon.

“Based upon our review of the route sheets and ridership levels, coupled with our interviews, it appears that double tripping combined with the staggered bell time approach enables the Transportation Department to make the most efficient use of the fleet,” the study reads.

The study looked at what it would take to “single trip” all 1,100 students, or have them all ride buses the same time, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. To do so, the district would need to buy seven more buses, at $100,000 each, and hire seven more drivers, the study said.

As for the overall management of its transportation system, the consultants recommend keeping it district-operated but also keeping options open for contracting bus services out to a private company, either partially or fully.

The consultants recommend in the short term that the district consider maintaining vehicles for neighboring districts, like Lake Placid, or other local organizations, like North Star Industries. Barker said that’s something the district will “absolutely” look into as a potential revenue source.

On the personnel side, the study notes that health insurance costs are one of the district’s biggest expenses. TAS said the district should “move towards a more equitable allocation of benefits and limits on future costs” in the next round of employee negotiations.

The study also recommends implementing an attendance incentive program to reduce the cost to the district of having to bring in substitute bus drivers.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or