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Coming soon to a Forsyth County Schools bus near you: air conditioning
Students wait in line to board a bus following the first day of school Thursday at Daves Creek Elementary. - photo by Micah Green

The Forsyth County Schools board of education has closed on an agreement to purchase 50 new school buses that they say will replace vehicles in an aging fleet, accommodate a growing student population and improve the work conditions of the county’s transportation staff.

At their regularly scheduled December meeting, the board of education unanimously approved the purchase of 30 72-passenger buses and 20 48-passenger lift-equipped special needs buses from North Carolina-based Thomas Built Buses at a total of $4,691,650.

At the meeting, Forsyth County School Director of Transportation Mike Satterfield told the board that the new buses will help the county reduce the maintenance costs of its fleet and add capacity to the system’s fleet.

"The new bus purchase ... is designed to retire some of our older buses that have come to the end of their life cycle, as well as increase our capacity to address student transportation needs as we grow," Satterfield said.

Satterfield told the board that the life cycle of a bus is about 20 years, but generally speaking, they try to reduce their maintenance cost by reducing the age of the fleet.

"We've got a handful of buses that are over that," he told the board. "So we'd like to replace those with something that is new.”

But according to Jennifer Caracciolo, director of communications for Forsyth County Schools, these new buses will come with some reportedly much-needed upgrades that will benefit the entire fleet.

Caracciolo said that each of the new buses will be fully air-conditioned. In the New Year, they will begin the process of retrofitting the entire county bus fleet to have air conditioning.

"For many years we've received feedback from students and parents about the conditions on the buses," Caracciolo said. "So from this point forward every new bus that we purchase will have air conditioning."

With that feedback in mind, she said that they included funds to buy new air-conditioned buses and to retrofit existing buses in the 2018 School Bond Referendum that was passed by voters in May. Through the bond process, she said that they received a flurry of positive feedback from the community about the idea.

Caracciolo said that the air conditioning upgrades will also go a long way in helping them attract bus drivers to the county, something that can be a challenge in the current market.

"Whenever the economy is doing well, we have a hard time hiring bus drivers because it's a competitive market," she said. "So we are recruiting bus drivers year round."

She said that like with parents and student feedback, they have heard from bus drivers about work conditions in non-air-conditioned buses, which could be stuck in traffic for moderate periods of time with limited airflow.

"We just thought it would be a great benefit to add the air conditioning,” she said. “Not just for the students but the drivers as well.” 

The school system is still determining what it will cost to retrofit their buses, but Caracciolo said that a proposal should come before the BOE in early 2019.

She said that the 50 new school buses will be slowly phased into the county fleet as they are made available by Thomas Built Buses.