Harford County Executive James M. Harkins has given the public school system's transportation unit the go-ahead to purchase 14 air-conditioned buses to be used in the transportation of special-education students.
School officials hope that this will be the first step in having its entire fleet of 63 special-education buses equipped with air conditioning.
"It's a big first step and it's a good first step," said Norm Seidel, director of transportation for Harford County Public Schools.
John O'Neill Jr., county administrator, said Harkins recognized the need for the air-conditioned buses and gave the school board the authority to move ahead with the purchase even though the budget process is far from complete.
None of the other buses in the county's fleet has air conditioning, although "some of the contractors have air-conditioned buses," O'Neill said. "This represents a change in our policy, but Jim Harkins thought its was a great idea."
Seidel said the 14 new buses, which are expected to be in the fleet by the start of the school year in September, will be used by the John Archer School, the Churchville facility that serves disabled students in the county.
'Most fragile students'
"These are our most fragile students, the ones most susceptible to heat, and most likely to have seizures," said Seidel.
He also hopes to have the seven other buses that serve John Archer refitted with air conditioning.
"We are not playing favorites," said O'Neill, "but we know those students at John Archer have special needs."
The 14 new buses will cost $64,500 each, for a total of $903,000, according to Donald Morrison, a spokesman for the school system. Air conditioning accounts for $98,000 of the cost.
Seidel said his goal is to eventually have the county's entire fleet of special-education buses equipped with air conditioning.
"That is a good long-term goal," O'Neill acknowledged, but he stopped short of saying the funding would become available for the remaining buses.
Seidel estimated that it would cost an additional $490,000 to install air conditioning on the other buses.
It's considerably less expensive to purchase a bus with air conditioning than to have it installed at a later date, he said. The price tag of a new bus jumps about $7,000 when air conditioning is added. It costs about $10,000 per bus to add it later.
Difference on the inside
On the outside, the difference between a special-education bus and a regular school bus is hardly noticeable. The special-ed buses are 29 feet long, about 5 feet shorter than a standard bus.
The big difference is on the inside. While a standard school bus can carry 64 students, the typical special-education bus seats a maximum of 20 and has slots for four wheelchairs.
Morrison said that when the 14 new buses arrive, they will replace others that have been on the road for 12 years, the maximum length of service allowed by law.
A one-way trip to John Archer, which enrolls students from the entire county, can take as long as 1 3/4 hours.
Morrison said that air-conditioned buses have been a priority of the Special Education Citizen Advisory Commission serving the school system for a number of years.
Seidel said the buses for John Archer have been in his budget request for the past four years.
In addition to serving John Archer, the special-education bus fleet takes Harford students to the Maryland School for the Blind in Baltimore, the Maryland School for the Deaf in Columbia and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.