December 2, 2021

School buses set to roll

McGraw School District bus driver Chuck Lacey hoses out a bus Monday at the bus garage as he prepares for the first day of school on Sept. 7.

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

McGraw School District bus driver Chuck Lacey hoses out a bus Monday at the bus garage as he prepares for the first day of school on Sept. 7.

School buses are a crucial element of all school districts with many students of all grades relying on the large yellow vehicles to safely take them to and from school.

To ensure these vehicles are safe for their young riders, hours of labor are put into checking every nut, bolt and square-inch of the bus before a child steps foot on one.

Preparations have already begun for area districts as many of the buses run year round.

About eight buses were used this summer from the Cortland School District for summer school and special education programs, said Keith Sutliff, the head mechanic in the district’s bus garage.

But those programs are now over and preparation for the new school year begins.

Dan Hill, the head mechanic for the Homer Central School District bus garage, said the first step is disinfecting the entire bus — the roof, seats, floors, walls, etc.

The floors are then striped and waxed with a similar wax used on the floors in schools.

The undersides of the buses are pressure washed and a rust preventative is sprayed underneath as well, Hill said.

The wheels are pulled off and the brakes are examined to make sure they are not worn out, a check done every 10,000 miles, according to Sutliff. And when the new brakes come in, the mechanics make sure they were put together properly before they are installed on the bus, he said.

“They (the manufacturer) may have assembled the brakes, but it is on us once they go on and the bus leaves,” Sutliff said. “We are the last line of defense.”

The buses are also checked every 1,000 miles by performing procedures such as checking all the fluids, air pressures and greasing all the appropriate joints, Sutliff said.

Hill said Homer’s buses are given a safety inspection every 45 days, whether they are used or not.

On average, during a school year, buses will put on about 18,000 to 20,000 miles, he said. In 2015, the 45 vehicles used for student transportation in the Cortland School District — 25 of them being full-size buses — covered 431,000 miles, Sutliff said.

Some of the smaller vehicles, like vans and SUVs are used for specific needs, such as driving long distances to pick-up students.

Despite all the miles put on the buses, they rarely have an engine or transmission failure, both Hill and Sutliff said. The buses are powered by Cummins Diesel engines attached to Allison transmissions — both highly regarded as efficient and durable.

The buses are replaced every five years at the Homer school district, according to Hill. Cortland buses are on a longer turnaround schedule, but Sutliff said the district is working to also be at five years.

The oldest bus in the city district is a 2007 model year, but it will be replaced soon, Sutliff said. After that, the next oldest bus is a 2008 model.

Vandalism is a common issue on many buses, but the two head mechanics said they have had minimal issues in the past few years.

The biggest problems tend to be rips in the seat. Depending on how bad the rip is, it can either be repaired with “seat tape” or the cushion has to be replaced, Sutliff said.

Every time a bus goes out for a route, the driver takes it for pre- and post-trip tests to make sure everything is working right and they must inform the mechanics if anything appears wrong.

With about three weeks before school starts, all of the maintenance procedures are wrapping up.

The signs in and outside the buses are being installed, along with a trash can for every bus. And Hill said most importantly, “make sure they are full of fuel.”

Tips for school bus safety

In the United States, about 23 million students take a bus to and from school each day. Nationwide, 24 school-age children die in school transportation-related crashes each year. offers the following advice:

— Children should arrive at the bus stop at least five minutes ahead of time. They should be at least three long steps (6 feet) away from the curb. And remind your child that the bus stop is not a place to run or play.

— When the bus arrives, wait until it comes to a full stop, the door opens and the bus driver says it is OK to approach the bus and enter.

— Your child should never walk behind the school bus. If your child must cross the street in front of the bus, they should walk on a sidewalk or along the side of the street, to a place at least five large steps (10 feet) in front of the bus before crossing. Your child should make eye contact with the bus driver before crossing, to make sure the driver can see him or her.

— Source: