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April 01, 1999  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Internet Provides Practical Benefits for Transportation Managers

The Internet can be used to track key legislation and approaching storms. It also can trim costs in disseminating information.

by Gary Luster, Senior Editor


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The practical uses of the Internet for school transportation are boundless, limited only by one's time restrictions and access speed. Although SCHOOL BUS FLEET's demographic information indicates that only one in three school transportation managers have access to the Internet, that percentage is growing every day. It's only a matter of time before the entire industry - drivers, supervisors, directors, administrators, suppliers and government officials - is wired into its own electronic school bus community. But there's already an abundance of information available about school transportation for those with access to the Web. The trick is finding what you need. As James Naisbitt put it, "We are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge." This is a perfect description of the Internet. Some obvious Web-based sources of information for school transportation people include weather sites, state and national pupil transportation association sites, federal government sites, publication sites and vendor sites. (For a directory of school bus industry Websites, see SCHOOL BUS FLEET's 1999 Fact Book, pgs. 84-86.) In addition to these group sites, personal home pages have become popular among school bus drivers and others involved in pupil transportation. These sites allow individuals to express their creativity and to "visit" with other school bus folks from around the country.

Dramatic transition?
J. Patrick Garcia, transportation director of Albuquerque Public Schools in Albuquerque, N.M., says the Internet will alter the manner in which people exchange information, once it finds its way into all households. "I think it's going to be a common tool that we all use," Garcia says. "It's going to be like using a telephone, it's going to be like using a personal computer and I think it's going to be common whether we're talking about a large city or a rural town." To improve his Internet skills, Garcia took a class on using search engines such as www.yahoo.com and www.infoseek.com. He credits the Internet with improving the efficiency of his information gathering. For example, by accessing state and federal government sites such as www.state.nm.us and www.fedstats.gov, Garcia puts legislative information at his fingertips. This has reduced his frustration level in collecting this information the old-fashioned way. "We would make phone calls and ask people if they have information that they can mail to us," Garcia says. "Or, we would subscribe to magazines and join organizations that provided literature, which made us dependent on what they have available, which may or may not address the issues that we are dealing with." Like his counterpart in New Mexico, Terry Beaver, transportation director for the Fresno Unified School District in Fresno, Calif., uses the Internet to track legislative efforts. His current interest is the status of seat belt bills in the state legislature. "The Internet works for me because it now allows me to be able to always get hold of someone, as long as I have their e-mail address," Beaver says. While legislative happenings have been on the front burner in Minnesota since Jesse Ventura was elected governor, Chuck Holden, transportation director at Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minneapolis, has been more interested in meteorological happenings. To that end, Holden has been able to track the weather through Websites such as www.weather.com and www.intellicast.com. Armed with the latest forecasts, he can confer with the superintendent about whether to cancel classes because of snow or to close school early because of an approaching storm. But Holden is using the Internet for more than weather forecasts. He's part of a district project to post student discipline reports on an intranet, a network that allows Internet access only to those within an organization. This will streamline the discipline report process and transmit the information more quickly and efficiently to all affected parties. "We want to make sure that drivers are filling out reports and communicating and also make sure that the building principals and staff at the schools who are responsible for taking action, are doing that," Holden says. The system allows school officials to enter an access code to retrieve the discipline information. They then provide an electronic response, immediately letting the bus company and the transportation office know what disciplinary action will be taken. A copy of the report could then be printed out and sent home to parents. "This way, if a child was in a fight on a bus, drivers don't have to wait two or three days to know what the school is doing about it," Holden says. Holden eventually wants to allow parents to have access to their child's information but right now, that idea is being approached carefully. "We're starting out more cautiously by using an intranet approach that connects all of us who have access under the law to student records and information," he says. "We'd like to slowly allow parents into that, and if that involves a special code so they can get access to only their own child's records, then so be it." While Holden's plans for his district's intranet are innovative, he says that's only the tip of the iceberg. Eventually, he'd like to use the Internet for nearly all communications with parents. This would speed the transmission of information and reduce costs. "With the number of students we transport, we spend $5,000 to $7,000 a year on postcards and postage just to get this information out to parents," Holden says. "Eventually, all of that could be online."

Vendors seek presence
Dozens of school bus industry vendors have created Websites. Many of these are "brochureware," little more than electronic reproductions of their sales brochures. But at least one industry manufacturer has taken that idea a step further. Freightliner Corp., the Portland, Ore.-based parent company of Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. in Gaffney, S.C., and Thomas Built Buses in High Point, N.C., has posted bus driver and maintenance manuals online. By going to www.alliancesupport, users can read the entire text and view all accompanying diagrams of Freightliner's manuals. Carlo Nardini, Freightliner's manager of technical service systems, says the immediacy is what separates an electronic version and a printed version. "A book goes out of date," Nardini says. "Online, we can put the most up-to-date, the latest and greatest information. We push that online and you know you're getting the freshest stuff there is, especially when you start talking about repair manuals, parts catalogs, training, etc. Having the latest and greatest is important." Nardini plans to provide regular monthly updates to the driver and maintenance manuals but eventually wants to get to a point where the online manuals can be updated anytime, as needed. Matt Pape, national marketing manager for the student transportation division of Ryder Public Transportation in Miami, helped develop Ryder's school bus safety Website. He believes that transportation managers need to move away from the traditional use of the Web to increase their efficiency. "The Internet is an awful lot of sifting through reams of information at this point," Pape says. "What we need to do instead is develop a way to harness that information so that you only get what you need, when you need it."

Interactivity emphasized
Pape says that one area where this would be effective is in an interactive question/answer session for parents online. "What you would have is an area where parents can log on and ask questions," Pape says. "So if their son is late returning home, they can ask questions and get information, not only about the location of their child's bus, but also get the bus number and its proximity to home." In the next few years, school transportation managers will find other ways to use the Internet. However, creativity will be needed to uncover school transportation applications. Constant attention to the possibilities of the Internet is the best approach.


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