VALDOSTA -- The Lowndes County School Board will soon consider a lease-purchase proposal for 18 new school buses.

Lowndes County School System's Melanie James, assistant superintendent for Finance, said the matter should be an action item during the board's January 2004 meeting.

"We need these buses plus some," said Bill Mortonson, director of the system's Transportation Department, which boasts 101 regular education buses, 15 special education buses, and a few spares.

The 16 regular education and two special education 2004 Internationals with seating for 66 passengers will cost the system an estimated $938,000, according to figures provided by James. If approved, she plans to recommend the financing for the new buses be bid over either a five-year or four-year period.

"A lease-purchase allows school systems with limited funds to go ahead and secure a larger number of buses and pay for them over a period of time," Mortonson explained. "Systems are only allocated so much money annually to purchase buses."

The new buses will offer plenty of extra elbow room for passengers, with space for 72 but a maximum seating capacity, according to the manufacturer, of 66. State guidelines, however, allow school buses to operate with an additional 20 percent above the bus's recommended maximum capacity, even if that means students will have to stand until a seat becomes available.

Mortonson said the new buses would allow the Transportation Department to retire some older ones and those with high mileage. The oldest regular education bus in operation is a 1987 model.

Each day during the school, the Lowndes County School System Transportation Department transports an estimated 7,500 students to and from school. Under normal circumstances, elementary students are seated three to a seat. High school students sit two to a seat. The system's policy, despite state guidelines, is for each child to have a seat when possible.

The Transportation Department is located at 1064 Howell Road and can be reached by calling 245-2257.

The Lowndes County School Board's next work session is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 13 in the Central Office on Norman Drive with the regular monthly meeting following at 7 p.m. Jan. 20.

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call 244-3400, ext. 255.

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