Loans and one donation help Wyandotte prepare to get kids to school until it can replace lost buses.

WYANDOTTE, Okla. — In a gesture of great generosity, Caney Valley Public Schools donated a school bus to Wyandotte Public Schools after the district lost nearly its entire bus fleet in a fire.

“I’m sure, like many, we caught the news in the morning of the fire and we immediately felt like this was a situation where we could help assist,” Caney Valley Superintendent Blake Vargas said. “We’re just glad to be able to help in their time of need.”

Caney Valley USD No. 436 is located in Caney, in southeast Kansas.

Last Wednesday night, Jan. 10, what appears to have been an electrical fire destroyed 10 of Wyandotte Public Schools district’s buses lined up and parked in a row in the old bus barn. The fire caused close to a million dollars in damages. The diesel buses were plugged into block heaters to keep the fuel from gelling during recent frigid weather in northeastern Oklahoma.

Last Friday, Vargas and Transportation Director Mark Smith drove down from Caney and delivered the donated school bus to Wyandotte Public Schools Superintendent Troy Gray.

“It’s very humbling,” Gray said Monday. “And it’s been humbling to see all the outpour from all the surrounding districts.”

Vargas said his district had targeted the used bus to possibly sell this spring, but as soon as it heard of Wyandotte’s dilemma came up with a new plan for the bus.

“The idea actually came about from my transportation director, Mike Smith, and he said, ‘Hey, why don’t we reach out and see if we can get them something for cheap,’ and before you know it the discussion was, ‘Let’s just give it to them.’ I started to make calls to the board members, and I already knew the answer ahead of time. It was unanimous.”

Using a Kansas legal statute that allows for the donation, the Caney Valley School Board — President Mark Artherton, Vice President Aaron Richey, Zach Ellison, Melissa McIntosh, Rick Wilson and Ron Wade — quickly approved the donation.

“I’m lucky to work for a board that really represents the spirit of the community and I’m blessed to work in a community that would give the shirts off our backs to help people,” Vargas said. “We delivered it, and we’re just happy to be able to help out. We hope it can serve the district well.”

Vargas said that although he did not know Gray beforehand, the smaller districts in the area have a different dynamic and a neighboring spirit. He said he knew Wyandotte would have done the same for them in such a situation.

“I always say that things happen to us for a reason. And the good Lord was speaking to us that day, and we had an opportunity to help out a neighbor,” Vargas said. “Ultimately it’s about the students, and I can’t even imagine from an administrator’s perspective of trying to figure out how you would handle that. But it’s about getting kids to school safe. That’s the common ground. There’s so many things that school provides, and we want to be able to help them get to school. We were happy to hear about all the other districts that were able to help them out, and we are happy to be a part of the help as well.”

Gray was impressed with the kindness of Vargas and the district’s board as well as the driver who volunteered to bring the bus to Wyandotte.

“We were in the middle of just trying to figure out how we were going to get our kids back into school, and it’s just a blessing. I can’t say enough to thank them,” Gray said. “My board was super appreciative; we’re appreciative; our kids are appreciative; and that’s what good neighbors do, and we appreciate them.”

Gray and Vargas both said they are proud of the way educators and communities pull together in times of crisis.

Vargas commended Gray on his handling of the situation and on his positive attitude and outlook in facing the results of the disastrous fire. Vargas said his interaction with Wyandotte Public Schools Board members and staff was also a testament to a strong school system.

“I told him I can’t even fathom waking up and trying to figure out how to manage that,” Vargas said.“The district there is lucky to have a man like him that’s dedicated. I think it’s a testament to the school itself.”

“Education is its own profession obviously; but we all share one common goal, and that’s what’s best for kids,” Gray said. “It reminds me as we went through this, anytime anything happens to our neighbors, or one of us, we all rally together. That’s what we do. It’s a pretty big fraternity. I know we compete on the courts and the fields and all that, but that’s not what we’re in this for when it gets right down to it. And we put all that aside. We are blown away.”

The significant snowfall this week in northeast Oklahoma delayed Wyandotte Public School students’ Tuesday return to class after Monday’s holiday as planned, but Gray said the district was ready to roll with borrowed school buses from other nearby districts.

“With that bus donated to us — and Miami loaned us three — we got buses from Carl Junction and Seneca; that got us back to what we need and get our kids in school. We have had several loaned buses and one donated, and the reality is we could have borrowed a hundred. I’ve had that many districts that have called to offer,” Gray said. “I can’t even name all of them. I had someone call from all the way down in Colgate, and Clinton, Vinita, McDonald County — the list goes on and on.”

Wyandotte’s superintendent said the response was overwhelming in number, support and generosity offered.

“I took time after I finally caught my breath the other day and wanted to respond to everybody, and hopefully I did. By the time I got through by the day after, I had responded and thanked over 50 schools that had called from all over the four-state area,” Gray said. “We would be the same way if it happened to somebody else. It’s what you do.”

Gray said the pieced-together bus fleet will help sustain Wyandotte bus routes until the amount of insurance reimbursement, including depreciation, is determined and the staff and board can devise a recovery plan.

“We’d like to return the borrowed buses as soon as possible,” Gray said. “We were ready to run Tuesday morning if we could have, but hey, it’s snowing. And not only that, but the wind chill is supposed to be below zero, and it’s not good to put kids out there waiting for a bus.”

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami (Okla.) News-Record.