OAKLAND — Any day now, Regional School Unit 18’s transportation director will welcome home a middle-aged school bus, fresh from a makeover and ready for another several years and tens of thousands of miles on the road.

Maintenance staff had kept the 2005 bus running smoothly, but the body of the bus was badly corroded.

“With the calcium and the salt on the highways today, the deterioration on the bodies is the real concern with these buses,” Director of Transportation Lennie Goff said.

Maine Military Authority dismantled the school bus, replacing and treating parts of the body and frame, then put everything back together and applied fresh paint and stenciling. It’s the fourth bus the authority has restored to like-new condition for RSU 18.

Maine Military Authority has refurbished military vehicles at the former Loring Air Base in Limestone since 1997. The authority is using that experience in its new School Bus Life Extension Program, a pilot program with the Department of Education.

Eight school districts have applied to have buses refurbished and are now waiting to see if the Legislature will approve funding to reimburse school districts for the expense.

The refurbishment costs $30,000, Maine Military Authority Business Director Tim McCabe said.

Buying a new bus costs $80,000 to $90,000, and the state reimburses eligible purchases — typically, replacements for buses that have reached 10 years and 125,000 miles.

Maine Military Authority and Department of Education officials first discussed school bus refurbishment several years ago, McCabe said, but it wasn’t an urgent need because of the money available to buy new buses.

The funding available peaked at $11 million in 2006-07. Since then, it has been $8.5 million every year except for 2009-10, when the size of the pot dipped to $7.9 million, Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said.

This year, the department received requests for 196 buses and approved reimbursements for 117, Connerty-Marin said.

Seeing school districts struggle to keep up their fleets with shrinking budgets, Maine Military Authority offered to refurbish two of RSU 18’s buses for free last year, to make sure they could do it in a cost-effective way, McCabe said.

Military authority and RSU 18 staff inspected the school district’s fleet to identify candidates for refurbishment.

The mechanical system of a school bus can be expected to last 15 to 20 years, McCabe said, but the bus body starts wearing out at 10 to 12 years.

McCabe said inspectors look for buses that are seven to 12 years old and have a well-maintained engine and transmission.

“A critical part of the process is determining where the bus is in its life,” he said. “Not by age or miles; it’s really how much rot and corrosion they have.”

Goff was so pleased with the results on the two test buses that the district paid the military authority to refurbish two more this year. He said he expects the work to extend the lifespan of the buses to 15 or 16 years.

“That’s not much longer than what I would have looked at anyways, but the issue being that at this point, I can go to sleep at night knowing that I have a safe fleet,” he said.

Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order in September to establish the pilot program. Funding for reimbursements, if approved, would be part of the supplemental budget.

Since the program started in November, 36 buses have been inspected and 16 approved for refurbishment, Connerty-Marin said.

Only RSU 18 has sent its buses to the military authority.

Scott LeHay, maintenance and transportation director for Anson-based RSU 74, had eight buses inspected and four deemed eligible for refurbishment, but he’s waiting for the reimbursement to be approved.

“If we could get these buses done for the right amount of money, refurbished, then instead of buying a new bus for $80,000 and up, we may be able to extend the life of our bus by five to six years and save the district some money,” LeHay said. “But that is all depending on whether the funding is going to come through the state.

“If they are not going to assist funding that, but they do assist funding for new school buses, it only makes sense to take that money for new buses.”

Goff said that if the program gets off the ground, he expects other transportation directors to sign on once they see how cost-effective it can be.

“I’ve talked to a lot of my peers out there about this program, and the truth of the matter is we would all like to have new buses,” he said. “With the budget constraints and the financial situation that districts are facing, the reality is that we can’t do that.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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