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New year, new fleet

School starts in only four days, and the Chilton County School Transportation Department is prepping its fleet for another nine months.

Joe Dennis has taken the helm as transportation supervisor, and he says he is “looking forward to a new challenge.”

Dennis cautions motorists to be aware of children getting on and off buses, and waiting for buses in the mornings and afternoons.

“Even though you may not see a bus, there might be children waiting on a bus,” he said, adding, “We have law enforcement and judges in this county who are very aggressive with people for running stop signs on buses.”

Safety is also a factor when it comes to new bus designs. The department is getting 12 new buses and three special needs buses this year, each equipped with an air-operated entrance and strobe LED lighting. Each 2009 model also features a digital camera system and an on-board computer that tells how long the bus has been idling (the latter feature for fuel efficiency).

The new buses, combined with 20 of the 2008 models, make up about a third of the fleet.

“All of our buses are less than 10 years old,” Bus Shop Foreman Bobby Martin said, noting that the state provides fleet renewal funding for newer model buses.

Currently, the department has 88 full-time routes and just over 100 buses, and they are pushed to cut mileage wherever possible due to high fuel costs.

The department logged 787,000 total miles during the previous school year, and spent $425,000 on fuel. It uses an estimated 8,000 gallons of fuel per month during months when school is in session.

The state estimates there will be a $123,000 shortfall in the fuel budget. The original allocation for fuel was $295,000 (for buses only), and the shortfall has been partially offset by an additional allocation of $43,000.

The rest must come out of the transportation budget and the general fund budget, Dennis said.

Dennis said they try to consolidate routes wherever possible, but as enrollment grows in areas like Jemison, only so much can be done.

“When you’ve got buses overloaded, it’s really all you can do,” he said.

Also, many drivers are parking at home in cases where the driver’s residence is closer to where their route begins.

Despite these concerns, Dennis is proud of the transportation staff, which ranked third overall in the state last year when it comes to number of deficiencies.

“I would like to commend the staff, mechanics and foreman,” he said, also acknowledging Superintendent Keith Moore and the Board of Education for their support of the department.

Davis is also stressing the need for more substitute bus drivers who are “safe, dependable and conscientious.”