By Marcy Stamper

The Methow Valley School District is planning to buy seven new school buses over the next three years — two this August, three next year, and two in 2018. The school board directors approved the recommendation by Bud Hover, director of operations and capital projects, at their March 23 meeting.

Voters approved paying $800,000 for six new buses in 2015, but the district determined it would be more cost-effective to budget additional money from the district’s general fund to add a seventh bus, according to Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable.

The state pays $93,400, spread over 13 years, toward each new bus, but does not provide any funding for older buses, so some of the district’s buses — the oldest is from 1997 — no longer bring in any state money, even though they typically cost more to maintain and repair. The state’s contribution is the same for all districts, regardless of climate or road conditions.

Hover is recommending seven identical 65-seat buses, with extras that bring the total to $125,000 per bus. Add-ons include a stronger engine and transmission suited to local terrain, tire chains, a heater in the rear, and a more comfortable seat for the driver. Even features like a back-up alarm and an “unlawful to pass” sign for a rear window are extra.

The district’s current fleet consists of 15 buses, some that seat more than 65 people, which will still be available if greater capacity is needed, said Hover.

All new buses will be equipped with security cameras. The security system requires a computer to download data from the camera, at another $40,000 to $50,000, which will come out of the district’s general fund, said Venable. The district will also be adding cameras to older buses over time.

There would be two cameras inside each bus, plus another on the stop sign to document vehicles that violate laws or pass a stopped school bus. Cameras will run all the time and are intended to increase safety by allowing drivers to monitor activity on the bus, said Hover. The technology allows a driver to mark a spot in the tape if there is an incident, he said.

By state law, bus cameras can photograph only the vehicle that doesn’t stop and its license plate, not the driver.

School board director Mary Ann Quigley said she was pleased to be getting the cameras because they will provide increased security. Just the presence of cameras will probably encourage students to behave, she said.

The board also discussed privacy issues connected with bus cameras, but noted that student privacy surrounding social media and computer use is different from safety issues.

“One of the biggest problems is that drivers are always being distracted,” said Hover. “I hope this will be a deterrent.”

The new buses will be designed so that seat belts can be added if desired, whereas the older buses would require a $30,000 to $40,000 retrofit to add seat belts, said Hover. State law doesn’t require seat belts on school buses and the Legislature is still reviewing research, since some studies suggest the high-backed seats protect children better, said Hover.

As the district acquires new buses, it will retire older ones, which date from 1997 through 2011. Repairs on some of the older buses have exceeded $5,000 this year, said Hover.

The district had considered switching to propane buses, but that proved impractical, since they would need a special, explosion-proof maintenance garage and there are not enough places in the region to refuel them, said Hover. The new buses will run on diesel fuel.