Keeping it cool — Cobb decides all school buses need air conditioning

A Cobb County School District bus driver picks up students at Picketts Mill Elementary School.
A Cobb County School District bus driver picks up students at Picketts Mill Elementary School.

Hundreds of Cobb County students will soon have relief from the heat as they ride to and from school on buses.

After a record-setting heat wave brought 90-degree days that stretched into October, the Cobb County School Board decided any new bus purchases in the future should include the option of air conditioning. Very little of the current fleet includes cooling now, and at a meeting last month board members disagreed over the necessity of paying an extra $10,000 per bus to add it.

Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said the district will not consider retrofitting existing buses without air conditioning.

“That’s totally off the table,” he said, adding the priority for the district will be to replace its special education buses that do not have air conditioning.

Board members unanimously voted to approve the immediate purchase of the nine buses with air conditioning from Yancy Bus Sales and Service for $895,758. The purchase will include five 72-passenger traditional buses and four 48-passenger buses for special needs students would be added to the district’s overall bus fleet.

Over the next four years, the school district plans to use about $21 million in voter-approved Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax dollars to replace 123 regular and 89 special education buses with a total of 212 new models with air conditioning. Ragsdale said adding air conditioning to these buses means the district will purchase 15 fewer buses than originally planned.

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Cobb Schools Chief Technology & Operations Officer Marc Smith presented updated information to the school board at its Thursday work session about the district’s fleet. The district has 1,110 buses, including 831 traditional buses and 279 special education buses. Smith said it will take at least 15 years to replace the bus fleet, or about three, five-year SPLOST cycles to pay to outfit the remaining buses with air conditioning.

School board member Dr. Jaha Howard, who asked his colleagues and district staff to consider a new policy to include air conditioning on all future bus purchases at the board’s Oct. 24 meeting, asked how the district will prioritize which routes will get air-conditioned buses first.

Smith said the school system will prioritize buses that carry “medically fragile students” and students with disabilities. Buses that travel long routes or that are at full capacity will also be among the first to get cooling.

The typical bus ride for regular education students is between 25 and 30 minutes, Smith said. Special education students might ride anywhere from 50 minutes to 1 hour, 45 minutes, he added.

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Before the board took its vote, two school district bus drivers thanked the district for the decision to add air conditioning.

Driver Angee Scott said she’s seen children sweating during their bus rides, adding, “Driving a hot bus with kids on those buses is kind of scary.” She also said the board’s decision could help the district recruit more bus drivers.

Jimi Richards said the news “picked up a lot of spirits” among his fellow bus drivers. Richards said he’s had three lung infections stemming from working in the heat.

Drivers who once had to operate their buses with manual transmissions and door openers marveled at the switch to automatic transmissions and doors. Richards said the same will eventually become true when the district adds air-conditioned buses to its fleet.

“One day they are going to say, ‘I can’t believe y’all drove buses without air conditioning,” Richards said of bus drivers.

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