UPDATE: Richmond Public Schools confirmed with 8News Thursday that there was no fire alarm system in place at the bus garage.

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Work is underway within Richmond Public Schools (RPS) to replace school buses and find an alternate maintenance facility for its fleet, after a massive Wednesday fire destroyed a leased repair site and five school buses used by the division.

According to the Richmond Fire Department (RFD), the first calls for the structure fire and billowing smoke came in around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. The blaze was marked under control approximately one hour later.

RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras told 8News at the time that the school division had leased the site for nearly 20 years. The most recent lease was finalized just a day before the fire struck.

However, a 2014 audit, conducted by Richmond’s Office of the City Auditor, recommended that RPS discontinue leasing the facility because of cost.

Over the years, RPS has paid about 150% of the assessed value of property leased to
provide a repair and maintenance facility for the fleet vendor. RPS purchased another
property for $1.1 million in 2004, with the intent of remodeling it and using it as a repair
and maintenance facility. RPS did not carry out renovations and has continued to incur
costs on leasing the existing property and avoidable costs for the past eight years. This
decision does not appear to be financially prudent.

School Board member Jonathan Young, although not on the board at the time, told 8News that while this recommendation was not initially followed, the circumstances have changed, in light of the fire at the Chamberlayne Parkway facility, and RPS may consider the purchased property on Belt Boulevard, where most of its fleet is currently housed, as a repair site. Young said the administration is also considering an alternate maintenance site outside of the City.

According to a spokesperson for the school division, the Belt Boulevard property was purchased on Sept. 29, 2004, and is currently used as offices for its Transportation Department and bus depot. But a repair/maintenance facility was not constructed at the site because funding was reportedly unavailable at the time.

“We are currently preparing a feasibility study to prepare to replace the Chamberlayne facility at the Belt Boulevard location,” RPS Director of Advocacy and Outreach Matthew Stanley said. “We do not yet know how long it will take to acquire five replacement buses, but we are confident that we will have enough vehicles to meet students’ transportation needs at the start of the 2022-23 school year.”

8News reached out to Thomas Built Buses, ICBus and Blue Bird Corp., which have all worked with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE). According to an RPS spokesperson, the latter is the school division’s primary vendor. As of Thursday evening, 8News had only received a response from Thomas Built Buses.

Demand for buses remains exceptionally strong, but supply chain bottlenecks and component scarcity continue to affect our manufacturing. We’re working our way through these issues, and our own backlog, as quickly as possible to help support our dealers and customers.

Thomas Built Buses spokesperson

Young said the immediate need is for a new maintenance site, but that the school division will also be taking swift action to replace the five buses that were lost in the fire. In addition to the school buses, Stanley said one SUV, one car and one lawnmower tractor were a total loss. There is limited damage to about two other vehicles.

Both Young and Stanley noted that the incident will not impact summer school, which began at RPS on Wednesday, the day of the fire.

“Our operational fleet is sufficient to meet summer school transportation needs and our vendors will be able to service emergent issues in the field as needed in the coming weeks. We are also using space at Richmond Technical Center for car repairs and a small garage at our Belt Boulevard location for bus repairs,” Stanley said. “We have been in touch with Chesterfield and Henrico Public Schools, but there are no plans in place to use any of their sites.”

Young noted that the buses are insured, and that the school division also has the contents of the garage insured for up to approximately $250,000. According to Stanley, the vehicles that were lost are fully insured with $1,000 deductibles and will be replaced.