Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Propane Buses: Environmentally and Financially Responsible

Isle of Wight County Schools recently ventured into a new era of student transportation with the purchase of our first propane powered school bus.  We began researching the possibility of adding propane buses to our fleet this past fall.  In March, a representative from Carter Machinery gave a presentation to our School Board on the benefits of using propane versus diesel buses.  Afterwards, we moved forward with acquiring the first propane bus for IWCS.  Currently, the bus is receiving some light use during this “trial run”.  It is currently being used to transport students to one of our regional programs, on a few field trips and as a substitute bus.  We’ll be investigating the addition of more to the fleet when we purchase replacement buses for next year.

I’m sure some of you are asking “Why propane?”    First, it is a much cleaner fuel than diesel.  As Transportation Coordinator Lee Livingston told me, diesel was never meant to be green.  A lot of money goes in to making a diesel bus run as “clean” as possible.  Propane buses use less oil and don’t require all the sensors and parts needed for a diesel bus to run.  For example, a catalyst in a diesel bus costs about $3,500 to replace, and this part will typically need to be replaced at least twice over the expected 15 year life cycle of a bus.  Plus, you have to factor in the labor involved, not to mention the bus being out of service during this repair.

Second, there are significant fuel rebates and tax credits from the state and federal government associated with using alternative fuels.  This makes the cost for propane fuel less then diesel.  We already have a contract with a local company for the small amount of propane used in our buildings.  With increased usage comes the opportunity to renegotiate our contract for a better overall price, further reducing the cost of propane.

A third benefit is the much quieter ride.  Bus drivers will be able to hear and talk to students without having to shout over the roar of the diesel engine.  This will increase safety on the bus and at loading/unloading zones.  There are other divisions throughout Virginia already using propane buses—Roanoke, Gloucester and Chesterfield are a few examples.  The drivers have compared the switch from diesel to propane as “going from a Pinto to a Cadillac”.  One division noted that the only complaint they received was from a parent whose child was missing the bus because they could no longer hear the roar of the engine as it was coming down the road in the morning. 
Propane buses do cost a little more than a diesel bus—ours was about $9,000 more than its diesel counterpart.  However, the cost differential will be covered by a grant through the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.  Because of the savings in maintenance and fuel, the total cost of ownership for a propane bus compared to diesel should save the division approximately $23,000 over the 15 year life of the vehicle.

Moving to propane buses is an innovative, cost-effective direction for the division. The quieter engine reduces noise on the bus, which allows the driver to focus on the road while being able to better hear what is going on around them.  Students can talk at a normal level and not have to yell over the loud engine.  In addition, the bus complies with all the safety features required of any school bus in Virginia.  Plus, the propane technology will result in savings over the life of the bus.  So keep your eyes open for our new propane bus. You will definitely see it before you hear it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

School Finance 101: The Ins and Outs of the Budget Process

Welcome to a crash course on school finance, specifically the budgeting process.  School budgets are unique creatures and for many people, even those in education, it can be a very difficult process to understand.  Development of a budget starts for us in October as we start to collect information from our schools and departments. All of this information is analyzed to ensure that the budget is a reflection of the strategic goals of the school division.  In December, the Governor releases his budget which then prompts us to start determining the amount of money we will need from our locality to meet the needs of the school.  However, the General Assembly doesn’t make their final recommendations on the budget until March 16th which can alter the Governor’s budget.  That was the case this year.  These changes required us to review our budget and make revisions to our proposed plan.

On Tuesday night, May 10, the Board of Supervisors met for final approval of the county’s budget.  Prior to Tuesday, the Supervisors held several work sessions to gather information in order to make the most informed decision possible.  They analyzed and researched all department expenditures and requests, asking detailed questions along the way.  Several members contacted me, as well as School Board members, throughout the process in order to have a better understanding of our budget.  Because of the diligence and commitment exhibited by the Supervisors and our Board, we received the majority of the funding that was requested.  The Board of Supervisors prioritized requests from the schools and the Sheriff’s Department, all while maintaining no tax increase to the public.
As a Superintendent and as a taxpayer, I am very appreciative that the process was conducted both professionally and thoroughly. The School Board and the Board of Supervisors, as well as county administration, need to be commended for the tireless effort and responsibility exhibited during this very difficult process.

Our school division will slowly begin implementing elements of the 5 C’s, STEM initiatives, and new Career and Technical Education courses, such as nursing, EMT, and engineering.  We will be painting several buildings this summer, while putting a schedule in place for painting the remaining schools by doing a few each year.  We will be providing new learning spaces for children and replacing furniture in 4th grade this year with plans to address other grades annually.  We will have a strong maintenance program and a rotational lease to buy and maintain buses for the future.  The common theme here is “schedule”.  IWCS did not have a formal plan for addressing these needs and, consequently, they were often neglected, especially during tight budget times.  Fortunately, the timetable we have put in place will ensure these needs aren’t overlooked in future years.

We started the budgeting process in October.  It’s now May and we have an approved budget for next year.  There was a lot of work, both behind the scenes and in public, to get us to this point. I would like to extend a big Thank You to all the individuals involved in this process, including parents, community, business leaders, and my staff. 

I hope this has given you some insight into what it takes to eventually have an approved budget.  The time and attention we put into the process allows us to present a budget that accurately reflects the needs of the division.  We owe that to our students and to all the citizens of this county.

Friday, May 6, 2016

In Appreciation of Our Teachers

Teacher Appreciation Week is drawing to a close and I certainly hope it’s been a great week for all the teachers throughout IWCS. I truly appreciate the commitment you show each and every day as you provide a quality education to our students. I’m sure we can all think back to our time in school and the teachers that had a tremendous impact on our life.  In most cases, they hold a special place in our heart because of how they made us feel. Safe, confident, intelligent, and happy are just a few adjectives that come to mind when I think back on my favorite teachers.  Right now, every teacher is, or will be, some child’s favorite teacher, and in many cases the students don’t even know it yet.  They will look back on their time in certain classes and realize just how much their teachers helped to shape their lives.
While it may take the students some time to appreciate what our teachers are doing for them, I am thankful now for several things and I would like to take just a moment to share with our teachers my thoughts:

Dear Teachers,

I AM THANKFUL FOR:  the excellent year that we are having; the high quality of education which you provide; all the dedicated and professional teachers working our schools.

I AM THANKFUL FOR:  having the chance to work with you this year; your cooperation; all the extra effort you have put into making Isle of Wight County Schools such an incredible place to be.

I AM THANKFUL FOR:  being made to feel so welcome during my first year; knowing that you are there and that our students can always depend on you.

Finally, I AM THANKFUL FOR YOU, the teachers, and I offer my deepest gratitude and respect.

I have a video dedicated to all of our teachers.  It highlights many of our classroom super-heroes from all of our schools.  As you watch, you will see teachers in many of their roles, and you’ll even see a few in costume.  They really will do anything for their students.  

Lastly, I hope all of you have a wonderful weekend, and I wish all the Moms a very Happy Mother’s Day. 

Video:  Thank You Teachers