New school buses should be in service Wednesday

Atmore Bus Shop Foreman Billy Mills leads a caravan of 16 new school buses as they turn off Jack Springs Road onto Maple Street last Friday.

The sight of 16 school buses traveling through town might not have seemed like a big deal to most casual observers. But to Atmore’s public schools and the county school system, the caravan of yellow and black represented a historic occasion.

“This is a first for Escambia County Schools, buying this many new buses at one time,” said Mona Simmons, the school district’s Director of Transportation and Director of Human Resources, as the buses continued to pull into the Atmore bus shop last Friday (January 27). “We got 16 for the schools in Atmore, 17 for the schools in Brewton. All our drivers were excited; they signed up readily to drive these buses back.”

Simmons, who escorted the new buses from Pensacola, pointed out that financing of the new fleet additions was as exciting as their acquisition.

“The 33 buses cost somewhere around $2.6 million,” she said. “But the district is not paying anything. It’s all paid through the state’s Fleet Renewal Program. Our local board didn’t have to put out any money at all.”

The Alabama Department of Education’s Fleet Renewal Program is designed to enhance the safety of students and drivers and to reduce the maintenance and fuel costs of operating older buses. The funds are provided to public school systems to replace any bus that has been in use for 10 years.

Simmons, Atmore Bus Shop Foreman Billy Mills and Administrative Assistant Louise White, who drove one of the vehicles, traveled to Pensacola with a cadre of drivers to take possession of the buses and bring them back to their respective shops.

The transportation director said she expected the buses to make their debut Thursday morning.

“We ordered them from Ward International in Mobile, and they brought all the buses to Pensacola,” said Simmons. “They processed them in down there, and we went to get them today. The state inspector will come and inspect all our buses on Tuesday, and if everything is all right, they’ll be in operation on Thursday.”

Mills was filling in for an injured mechanic during Tuesday morning’s inspection and was not immediately available for comment. But White reported that the timeline had been moved up a little.

“We’re actually going to put them in service Wednesday afternoon,” she said. “Before the other buses are passed down to other drivers, we want to make sure they’re clean. But when the drivers go the schools around 2 or 2:30 Wednesday afternoon, it will be in the new buses.”

Nikki McMullen, one of the drivers, said she liked the new bus she would be driving, although there would be a few things she would have to get used to.

“It was very different, having the door open to the right,” she said. “But it drove really well. It pulled hills better than my other bus.”

Most of the drivers reported that they were surprised when their fuel alarms went off during the 45-mile trip.

“They gave us just enough fuel to get back,” Simmons laughed.

White pointed out that the acquisition of new buses is not a unique event, but the number of new ones is.

“It’s not like we haven’t gotten new buses before, but we’ve never gotten this many at one time,” she said. “To get pretty much a whole new fleet at one time is really amazing.”