PITTSFIELD -- The Pittsfield Public Schools' plan to replace the city's aging fleet of school buses has run into a red light, forcing the district to rebid the project.

The School Committee had received four bids toward a lease/purchase agreement for 43 new school buses at an estimated annual net cost of $200,000 under a three-year contract.

However, the school administration learned after the bid process that money from the sale of the existing fleet had to go toward an outright purchase of buses because the city still owes on the loan for the buses that were bought eight years ago.

"We're not able to use the bond proceeds to lease the buses," said school district Finance Director Kristen Behnke.

Afterward, Behnke said the city has $1.67 million left on the $2.75 million it borrowed in 2006 to pay for 52 buses. City school officials say they will save money by downsizing the fleet from 52 to 43 buses and still meet the district's transportation needs.

In June, the committee approved the lease option as part of its $65.43 million operating budget for fiscal 2014, which began July 1.

The school district was originally scheduled to spend $435,000 toward the purchase of eight buses in the current fiscal year, the first of a five-year replacement plan.

Upon further review, city school officials said leasing would be more cost-effective allowing Pittsfield to maintain the familiar yellow vehicles and continue to use city-hired school bus drivers.

The news of rebidding the bus project didn't sit well with School Committee member Terry Kinnas.

"I see this as a financial monster coming down," he said.

By the committee's next meeting on Jan. 8, Behnke expects to offer an alternate bus replacement plan that could be a combination of buying some buses and leasing the rest.

Committee Chairman Alfred E. "Alf" Barbalunga is confident the project will go forward before the end of the school year, one that's been in the planning stage for nearly three years.

"We all share in the pain of this experience," he said. "Hopefully we'll have new buses in the first quarter of 2014."

To reach Dick Lindsay: rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6233.