Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

Despite having a full inspection on April 18, a Macon County Schools activity bus is a total loss after a fire fully engulfed the bus over the weekend. 

The bus was returning to Macon County after a trip to Asheville carrying four Macon County students and 10 to 15 additional students from other area schools and staff from Southwestern Community College’s Upward Bound Program when the bus blew a tire and ended up fully engulfed in flames near Canton. The quick response from Upward Bound staff resulted in no injuries from the incident. 

“Along with everyone at all our partner schools throughout Jackson, Macon, Swain counties and the Qualla Boundary, our SCC family is thankful that no one was harmed during this frightening incident on Saturday in Haywood County,” said Dr. Don Tomas, president of Southwestern Community College. “We are extremely proud of our Upward Bound staff members whose quick thinking kept everyone safe. Saturday’s actions were proof that Erica Muse, Annette Kesgen and Cheryl Renfro always make safety their highest priority when it comes to watching out for the young people in their care.”

Although it was a Macon County Schools bus, the SCC program had borrowed the bus for the activity and it was driven by SCC staff. Upward Bound is a federal program that provides fundamental support to students preparing for college. The program provides opportunities for participants to succeed in high school and ultimately in higher education pursuits. Upward Bound serves: high school students from low-income families; and high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree. 

“Upward Bound has been supporting Macon County students for decades,” said Dr. Baldwin. “This program has helped to increase the rate at which our students graduate from high school and enroll in and graduate from institutions of postsecondary education.” 

The group were on a career exploration trip where they visited the Facebook Data Center and participated in a community service activity at Manna Food Bank in Asheville on Saturday. 

According to Dr. Baldwin, the bus was inspected 11 days prior to the trip. 

“The last inspection of this bus was on April 18,” said Dr. Baldwin. “Everything checked out fine. The tires were properly inflated at 120 psi. The rear tires had 20./32 inch of tread depth.  The fronts had 19/32 and 11/32  The bus garage replaces tires at between 5/32 and 6/32 depth.  A new tire will have between 22 and 23/32 inch tread depth. These Michelin, (non-retread) tires were installed at 106,256 miles. The bus’ odometer currently reads 112,352 miles.”

The Upward Bound group were able to borrow a bus from Haywood County Schools to return home on Saturday. 

Yellow school buses are funded by the state based upon the number of students and routes that are served by the school system. The state replaces yellow buses when they reach 20 years of age or 200,000 miles, whichever comes first. White buses or activity buses are funded locally, and Dr. Baldwin said Macon County uses the same formula for the replacement of activity buses. The bus that caught fire on the weekend was about 88,000 miles away from a scheduled replacement. 

While the state funds buses based on mileage, for rural school districts, the funding isn’t enough to meet the needs and distances the buses travel in the mountains. In the western part of the state, buses often travel a few hundred miles a year, which is why some buses are replaced every 20 years instead of at 200,000 miles. However, in the mountains, a routine trip to Asheville, something classes and athletics do multiple times a week, is easily a 200-mile round trip at once. Buses in the mountains also experience more wear and tear due to the terrain than that in the eastern part of the state. A 200 mile round trip up and down Cowee Mountain, and then up and down Balsam is more strenuous on a bus than 200 miles driving around Charlotte or Raleigh. 

This year, Macon County Schools has requested two new activity buses — one 66 passenger bus and one 21 passenger bus. The cost for the two buses is $141,897 which county commissioners will have to consider funding. Dr. Baldwin said that for now, the district will be operating with one fewer bus in the school system fleet. On Monday, the middle school soccer team had to wait for a bus to return from a field trip to Asheville before being able to use the same bus to make it to their last game of the season. Dr. Baldwin said the district will need to determine the insurance response, assess the scheduling impact of the loss of the bus and possibly modify capital outlay requests and/or priority when disbursing the capital outlay allocation.