Salem-Keizer seeks $60 million for new buses and transportation facility

School buses parked in the Salem-Keizer School District lot on Hawthorne Avenue (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salem-Keizer school district administrators want to spend $60 million to replace 195 school buses and construct a new 33,000 square foot transportation center by 2022.

Mike Wolfe, the district’s chief operating officer, presented a plan last week to the school board to spend $26 million on new buses and $34 million on the new building, paid with bonds issued by the district.

The proposal wouldn’t increase taxes. The district will pay back the money it borrows through state reimbursements and out of its general fund over many years.

“Effective transportation services are absolutely critical to the success of the district,” Wolfe said. “We’re at the point in the life of our transportation system where a significant investment in buses and facilities is necessary.”

The district had a regular bus replacement schedule in the past but fell behind because of budget cuts during the Great Recession, Wolfe said. From the fall of 2009 to the spring of 2014, Salem-Keizer replaced only 11 total buses.

The district’s total fleet is about 500 vehicles, including about 300 school buses. The 195 buses officials seek to replace are near or past the end of their 20-year lifespan, district spokeswoman Lillian Govus said.

The transportation department has been increasingly stretched in recent years because of driver shortages and growing numbers of students who are homeless or in foster care and receive special door-to-door transportation, often across long distances.

Currently, buses operate out of a main lot on Hawthorne Avenue, which has about 190 buses stationed there, and three satellite lots, the largest of which is at 5200 Gaffin Road.

Wolfe said they plan to build a new facility at the Gaffin site, which would house all the district’s large school buses when completed in 2022.

Transportation workers currently operate about 50 school buses out of the property, but there’s no permanent building for operations. Instead, employees have converted an old bus into a makeshift headquarters.

“We’ve been operating like this for years. It’s effective and efficient, but it’s a bus,” Wolfe said.

The existing headquarters on Hawthorne Avenue would house small buses and other smaller transportation vehicles.

Board members will vote on the plan at their March 10 meeting. If they approve, the district could issue up to $65 million in bonds this summer.

With interest, the total cost of paying off the debt would be about $87 million, Wolfe said.

Much of that would be covered by reimbursements from the state, which allow school districts to recoup 70% of bus purchase costs over several years following purchase. More money is available through the state’s settlement with Volkswagen over its emissions cheating scandal to buy more efficient diesel buses, Wolfe said.

The district’s projections show most of the project costs covered through state reimbursements and other sources. About $9.6 million would have to come from the district general fund over a six-year period.

The new fleet would meet state diesel standards for school buses schedule to go into effect in 2025 and would be more fuel efficient, potentially saving money in fuel costs.

“We believe this investment will put the district on the right track,” Wolfe told the board.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.