Politics & Government

Flashy activity buses in Kansas: too cool for school?

Republican consultant Kris Van Meteren used this photo of Pike Valley School District’s activity bus to argue that luxury buses refute Kansas schools’ complaints of state underfunding.
Republican consultant Kris Van Meteren used this photo of Pike Valley School District’s activity bus to argue that luxury buses refute Kansas schools’ complaints of state underfunding. Courtesy photo

A Kansas Republican strategist says luxurious and festively decorated school activity buses are a waste of taxpayer money and undercut the schools’ arguments that they need more state funding.

Kris Van Meteren of the Singularis Group consulting firm jump-started that debate with a Facebook post on his observations about the many shiny, logo-emblazoned buses he saw in the parking lot at the state high school track meet in Wichita last month.

“The Wichita State University parking lot was littered with these luxury liner buses ... many of them with school mascots and names on them,” he wrote. “Do local school boards and administrators have no clue how the optics of something like that look to the average taxpayer?”

Officials in school districts with motor coach activity buses say they’re safer, more comfortable and more efficient for transporting students on long journeys, a fact of life in sparsely populated rural areas where schools routinely transport students to activities three, four and five hours’ drive from home.

The debate quickly picked up speed on social media, much like two years ago when a $47,000 piano purchased by a Kansas City, Kan., school became an issue. The #KCKpiano touched off a Twitter war and was cited by Gov. Sam Brownback as an example of school overspending amid the ongoing debate over education finance.

Mismanagement alleged

Van Meteren said his bus post “generated a lot of buzz.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a political post generate that much interest, shares and comments and so on,” he said.

Van Meteren said the flashy buses refute public schools’ complaints that they need more money for their budgets.

You’ve got kids riding to state track meets on these high-back-seat, air-conditioned, luxury liner buses and at the same time they’re saying that parents have to come up with additional funds to buy textbooks or paper or whatever for the classroom.

Kris Van Meteren, Kansas Republican strategist

“It’s just the juxtaposition of the two claims,” Van Meteren said. “You’ve got kids riding to state track meets on these high-back-seat, air-conditioned, luxury liner buses and at the same time they’re saying that parents have to come up with additional funds to buy textbooks or paper or whatever for the classroom. It just seems like there’s some mismanagement going on.”

The state Supreme Court ruled in March that funding for schools is inadequate and gave the Legislature until the end of this month to allocate more money for education. Lawmakers are trying to reach a resolution on a new school finance formula this week in Topeka.

Many of those commenting online agreed with Van Meteren’s take on activity buses, including Ned Ryun, son of Olympic track star and former Kansas Rep. Jim Ryun.

“We rode in a old yellow school bus when I was at Lawrence High,” wrote Ned Ryun, who runs a conservative consulting firm and political training institute in Washington. “And we were track and field state champs three years in a row at 6A, and we were just fine.”

Van Meteren is a former Kansas Republican Party executive director whose campaign consulting clients include Brownback and Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. The company handles campaign mailings for most of the conservative Republican politicians in the state.

Bus goes 1.5 million miles

School officials say Van Meteren’s criticism is misplaced and that you can’t judge a bus by its cover.

Although they may look like they just rolled out of the showroom, most school activity buses were retired after lengthy careers with bus lines and tour companies. They’re refurbished and put into school service, where they’re heavily used for decades, the school officials said.

They’re more efficient, safer and much more comfortable than standard yellow buses for trips that often run into hundreds of miles, said superintendents in the Pike Valley and Norton districts, which Van Meteren had singled out as having especially sweet rides.

Van Meteren noted the Pike Valley district is based in the town of Scandia, 165 miles north of Wichita and 15 miles south of the Nebraska state line.

“How is it that a town in North Central Kansas with a population of 359 people can afford a Greyhound type bus for their students?” he asked in his post. “I’m not talking about renting or chartering one to haul their kids to state, but actually owning one with the school’s name and logo plastered on the side?

“I saw through the windshield. High-backed seats and tinted windows. I’m sure it is well air-conditioned and rides ever so smoothly.”

Mary Treaster, the superintendent in Pike Valley, said Van Meteren picked the wrong example.

“It was there when I got there,” she said of the bus. “I know that it’s a 2000 (model), so it’s 18 years old. It has about a million and a half miles on it. It seriously does.

“But it’s very pretty,” she added. “It’s a very nice-looking bus and it does ride really well.”

She said the bus is used “for all of our athletic trips, both junior high and high school. We use it for field trips. Our community really likes it. It’s comfortable for the kids.”

She said Pike Valley doesn’t have any extra buses and would have to take a yellow bus off route service if the district didn’t have an activity bus.

The money to pay for it came from an insurance settlement on a previous activity bus that was wrecked 18 years ago, she said.

Financially, it’s not a luxury, because it didn’t cost more than another route bus would have cost and we’d have had to buy another route bus.

Mary Treaster, superintendent in Pike Valley

“Financially, it’s not a luxury, because it didn’t cost more than another route bus would have cost and we’d have had to buy another route bus,” she said.

One bus or two?

Van Meteren also took note of the bus from Norton, a western Kansas town of 3,000 that hugs the Nebraska state line 275 miles northwest of Wichita.

Some of those commenting on Van Meteren’s online post pointed out that many school activity buses are paid for with private donations and fundraising, but Van Meteren said he checked and found that’s not the case at Norton.

“I know it’s not the case in all cases that booster clubs and private parties are paying for these buses,” he said. “Norton has a very nice bus that’s showing up on their budget documents for the district that they’re making payments on it.

“I wish I’d taken a picture of the Norton bus,” he said. “One of the comments underneath my post said the superintendent said they were looking for a tricked-out bus. That would qualify.”

Phil Wilson, superintendent of schools in Norton, said the bus is actually a refurbished bus-line coach that had 280,000 miles on it when the district bought it two years ago.

“None of these buses are new,” he said. They look new only because they’re repainted and new decals are put on as part of the refurbishing process, he said.

The district paid $226,500. As in Pike Valley, it replaced a bus that was totaled in an accident.

The insurance settlement, $57,000, was applied as a down payment on the new bus, according to school board records.

Although the bus cost about twice as much as a standard yellow school bus, it’s far more efficient, and Wilson said he expects it to pay for itself in the long run.

The biggest difference is that the new bus is bigger than a regular school bus, meaning there’s room for 60 students and chaperones and a cargo hold big enough for their sports gear, band instruments and other luggage.

“With the old buses, we had to take two,” he said. “Now we take one. It saves our taxpayers money.”

It cuts the fuel bill in half and means the district has to pay only one driver for extended trips instead of two, he said.

“Drivers are hard to come by” in a remote town like Norton, he said.

Treaster and Wilson said the activity buses are the only ones in their fleets with air conditioning, about a $10,000 option on the cost of a yellow bus.

While lack of air conditioning isn’t a big deal for short trips between home and school, it’s a concern on hot days when the trips stretch to three or four hours each way, they said. Temperatures were in the mid-80s at the state track meet.

Wichita: No activity buses here

The Wichita school district, the state’s largest, doesn’t have any activity buses, spokeswoman Susan Arensman said.

Wichita contracts for regular bus service with a private company, First Student. City schools mostly play against each other, and the yellow buses are fine for the cross-town trips, Arensman said.

When a large group needs to make a long trip – for example, to a football game in Dodge City – the district hires a local tour company to provide the transportation, she said.

Van Meteren said he’s not especially impressed by the schools’ justifications for touring-style buses.

“I’m not surprised that they come up with responses like this,” Van Meteren said. “And to clarify, nobody’s against safety or even comfort. (But) any time the public calls on the public school system to save money here or there, there’s a baked-in resistance to doing that.”

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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