School district may buy more in future

by: BARBARA SHERMAN - Kris Spencer, the driver of the Sherwood School District's first propane-powered bus, exchanges high-fives with Archer Glen Elementary students boarding the bus after school Oct. 4; the school's Fun Run was held that day, and some of the students invited Spencer to come and watch them run, which she did.The Sherwood School District is once again on the cutting edge of technology. It has been a leader in utilizing the latest high-tech tools to teach students, and now it is transporting some students in a new alternative-fuel school bus.

The Blue Bird propane-powered Vision bus is powered by a Ford 6.8L engine, which has been designed and engineered to operate on propane utilizing the ROUSH CleanTech liquid propane autogas fuel system and has zero emissions, according to Blue Bird’s website.

The lucky Sherwood driver operating the new bus - just acquired in August - is Kris Spencer, a driver/trainer who has been working for the district for 17 years.

According to Robert Fagliano, the district’s director of support services, and Keith Bowers, the district’s vehicle maintenance specialist, one of the older buses needed to be replaced, and the district had previously done research on alternative-fuel buses.

“They’re not common, but they’re out there,” Bowers said. “We ordered it in mid-April and took delivery Aug. 15.”

The district has 33 full-sized and smaller buses in addition to vans along with 30 drivers plus trainers and substitute drivers; it operates 18 regular routes and eight special-needs routes, and most of its buses except for a few use diesel fuel.

Doing the math shows that there are some extra buses, but they are needed for backup in case of breakdowns or accidents, according to Bowers.

“We assign the buses to routes based on miles driven, whether they are used for field trips or in the middle of the day and so on,” he said. “The new propane bus just happened to be assigned to Kris.”

So far, those in the transportation department are pleased with the new propane bus.

“We did our due diligence and came to the conclusion that this was a good idea - economically and environmentally,” Fagliano said.

Down the road, Sherwood may replace more old buses with new propane-fueled ones, and “the best cost benefit would be to have our own propane tank here to fill the buses,” he added. “Right now, we use a company that comes and refuels the propane and diesel.”

School buses can last a long time, according to Fagliano. “We have two that are 25 years old, but those buses are not driven every day,” he said.

The conventional lifespan of a school bus starts with the state reimbursing the district over the first 10 years for the purchase price, and after five more years, the district starts planning for its replacement.

“Safety standards improve every year, but it’s a fallacy that old buses are not safe,” Bowers said. “The state wouldn’t let us use them if they weren’t safe.”

Fagliano explained, “Buses are the safest way to transport children to and from school,” and Spencer added, “School buses are 13 times safer than any other form of transportation.”

In addition to being environmentally friendly, the new propane bus doesn’t just act differently from the older buses — it looks different.

The transit-style school bus design has a flat front like TriMet buses, but the Vision and other conventional buses protrude in the front. In a conventional bus, the wheels and engine are in front of the driver, while the wheels are behind the driver in the transit buses.

“And starting it is totally different,” Spencer said. “You turn it on and wait for it to start. You turn the key and it starts on its own after a series of clicking.”

In addition, there are many safety features engineered into the design of propane buses.

“Safety standards are built in, and it has a manual and automatic shut-off,” Spencer said. “The propane is in twin double-walled tanks located inside the frame, and if the fuel door is not shut, it won’t start. Gasoline is more volatile than propane. Plus, buses are high off the ground. If a car hits you, it goes underneath the bus.”

Spencer likes driving the bus because it is much quieter than a conventional diesel bus. “It’s very smooth to drive,” she said.

In fact, several district officials went to Boring to test-drive a propane bus before making the commitment to purchase one. “Seven or eight of us were sitting in the back talking, and we couldn’t have had a conversation like that in a diesel bus,” Spencer said.

Technically, buses can hold 84 K-fifth-grade students with three to a seat “although we would never do that many,” Spencer said. “With middle-school and high-school students, the maximum is 56 students because they are larger.

“The younger kids like the new bus and say it smells good, and the high school kids have questions about it.”

Buses cost just north of $100,000, but a propane bus costs $8,000 less than a diesel bus plus it saves $3,000 in expenses annually.

Every year, district drivers who want to change routes can bid on ones that open up, so there is sure to be a bidding war if Spencer ever decides to give up her route.

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