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

Great Fleets Across America, Part 1

A state-by-state compilation of school bus fleets that merit recognition for excellence.


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MISSISSIPPI
Biloxi School District
Biloxi, Miss.

With a retired Air Force officer at the helm, it’s not surprising that order and organization are highly valued in the transportation department at Biloxi School District. The garage is scrubbed down every Friday and tools are always in their proper place. “I’ll match our facility against anybody’s,” says Jerry Tatum, the district’s transportation director for the past 18 years. “We probably have the safest, most well-maintained fleet in the state.” Quarterly inspections are done with a “fine-toothed comb,” Tatum says. His maintenance staff of three mechanics and fleet manager tends to 50 school buses, including spares, and about 25 other district vehicles, such as cars, trucks, tractors, lawn mowers and fork lifts. Tatum prefers to hire mechanics with skill, aptitude and general background knowledge, but shies away from workers with “too much experience.” Those workers are less likely to learn to do things the Biloxi way, Tatum says. Deviating from the norm, Biloxi’s fleet is made up of gasoline buses. He previously operated propane buses, but shifted to gasoline in the early ’90s because of escalating propane prices. Eventually, he’ll switch to diesel vehicles, but has been reluctant because of the additional training his mechanics will require. Although the district has several traffic impediments, including two draw bridges and a busy CSX rail line, Biloxi’s buses are “very, very rarely late,” Tatum says. In fact, he says the buses are “too good” in meeting their schedules. This punctuality can create unreal expectations among parents and students. “People do get spoiled,” he says. On a daily basis, 35 buses transport about 6,000 students in the coastal resort area. Competition from Biloxi’s fast-growing casino industry has hampered the district’s driver recruitment and retention efforts, but Tatum says the majority of his drivers are long-timers. These retirees and housewives comprise approximately 75 percent of the driver corps.

MISSOURI
Independence School District
Independence, Mo.

From the back yard of Harry S. Truman in the Show-Me state, Independence School District has proven that an educational institution can successfully convert its fleet from privately operated to publicly run without a hitch in its git-along. The fleet was converted two years ago after decades of contractor operation. Transportation Director John Davies says it appeared to be a “seamless transition” — from the outside. Internally, Davies says, the operation had to be built from scratch. “It looked real easy to everyone except me,” he says. Typically, the biggest hurdle that districts face in re-establishing an in-house operation is acquiring buses. Independence sidestepped this hurdle by leasing rather than purchasing a fleet of approximately 110 new buses. Not only did this minimize capital expenditures, it also allowed the maintenance staff — six mechanics and a shop foreman — to take over the operation with fresh horses. Davies says the garage staff does an excellent job in maintaining the 2-year-old fleet, which has achieved passing rates of 96 and 98 percent in mandatory state inspections. “Last year we would have been perfect except that we had two taillights burn out on us,” he says. Each day, the buses transport approximately 9,500 students in the district, located just west of Kansas City. The transportation budget is $3.2 million, but Davies stays well within his means, coming in $300,000 under budget. Harry S. Truman, who Davies often saw walking the streets of Independence, would be proud. Davies credits his drivers, office staff, school administrators and the school board for the department’s success. “They’ve all made a strong contribution to what we’ve accomplished,” he says.

MONTANA
Beach Transportation
Missoula, Mont.

The Beach family started in the transportation business more than a hundred years ago, hauling supplies across Montana in a covered wagon. In 1941, Ray Beach became the first school bus contractor for Missoula County schools. Since then, Ray’s son Bob has grown the family business, with the help of his own sons, Greg and Scott. “I think it’s important to carry on the family business,” says Greg, who currently serves as vice president, alongside his brother Scott. Today, with 100 vehicles and 135 employees, Beach Transportation is ranked among the top bus operators in the nation. The company is a three-time winner of the National School Transportation Association’s Golden Merit Award for service, safety and community responsibility. It is also a two-time recipient of a No. 1 rating from the Department of Defense’s Military Traffic Management Command for maintenance, safety and training. Greg says the key to their success has been treating employees like family. “We believe that if we take care of our drivers, then they will take care of the students that we transport.” Taking care of drivers includes having monthly safety drawings for a $100 prize on accident-free months and awarding school coats or caps to drivers who watch a certain number of safety videos. Running a tight ship has earned the Beach family contracts with the University of Montana, the U.S. military and several travel agencies. The company owns 12 motorcoaches for these purposes. The growth of the company, however, has not diminished the integrity of its members. Beach Transportation reaches out to the community through newspaper and radio ads on school bus safety and reduced-price trips for community organizations.

NEBRASKA
Lincoln Public Schools
Lincoln, Neb.

Lincoln Public’s fleet of 138 yellow buses makes it one of the largest operations owned by a local district in Nebraska. During the school year, the fleet transports 6,000 students to 48 different schools, and racks up about 7,100 miles per day. And while the lengths of the routes are impressive, the manner in which the district services them is even more impressive. With a transportation budget of $4.5 million and a 212-member staff that includes 15 mechanics and a full-time driver trainer, the department leads the state in driver training programs and vehicle maintenance. Transportation Supervisor Jean Mann believes the secret to successful driver training lies in the individual attention paid to drivers. Although all drivers must train behind the wheel for a minimum 40 hours, the district is careful to ensure each driver is fully prepared before beginning a route. “The key is making people feel comfortable.You don’t want them to feel frustrated the first day on the job because they’ll end up leaving,” says Mann. The fleet maintenance program is as comprehensive and keeps buses on the road under the most extreme conditions, in a state where temperatures can range from 100 degrees to 20 below zero. Nebraska requires buses to be inspected every 80 days; however, the district brings in buses every 20 days for a complete inspection. “Preventive care saves us hours of maintenance in the long run because you can catch a problem while it’s in the garage,” Mann says. She also recommends challenging mechanics by allowing them to work on buses of differing sizes. “We give each mechanic both big and small vehicles to look at so that they are more well rounded. They’ll be interested in what they’re doing if there is variety in their work.”

NEVADA
Clark County School District
Las Vegas, Nev.

Keeping up with one of the fastest-growing enrollments in the county is a challenge more than met by the transportation department at Clark County School District. Transportation Director Ronald Despenza says his department added 60 routes this year to keep up with the remarkable influx of people into the Las Vegas area. On the equipment side, the district has purchased 74 new buses, growing the fleet to 980 buses. The operation is run from four terminals, but the district is expanding in that area as well. The construction of two $15 million bus facilities was recently approved. Each will have a capacity of 500 buses. Despenza says the additional facilities may have more capacity than they need, even with the sprawling growth, unless the district decides to reduce the walking distance. Despite the need for additional drivers each year, the district does not have a driver shortage. “That’s primarily because of our wages and our equipment,” Despenza says. The starting wage for drivers is $12.60 an hour. Even the local transit agency does not pay as well. “We get many of our drivers from them,” he says. Each new bus has air-power doors, air-ride seats and sound-deadening ceilings. Many of the buses are equipped with the same type of air-conditioning systems that are used in motorcoaches. Despenza says the objective is to keep drivers happy — and safe. “A more relaxed, comfortable driver is a safer driver,” he says. The additional cost of these options is not a significant consideration. “We don’t put a price on the safety of students,” Despenza says. To provide drivers with a comfort zone at the start of the school year, the district has added two days of dry runs. Not only does this familiarize the drivers with their routes, it also allows them to meet the building administrators. When the driver reaches the school site, he takes a few minutes to introduce himself to the transportation liaison, whether that’s the principal, assistant principal or business manager. “That’s helped out tremendously,” Despenza says.

NEW HAMPSHIRE
Manchester Transit Authority
Manchester, N.H.

The transit agency in Manchester has been handling school transportation for the Manchester School District for as long as anyone can remember. “It’s been 25 or 30 years at least,” says Donald Clay, general manager of the transit authority, which operates approximately 85 school buses in addition to 25 transit buses. The agency also maintains about 65 city vehicles, such as cars and light trucks. It’s all done with a crew of five mechanics and two garage helpers. “They all do an excellent job,” Clay says. His assertion is backed up by statistical evidence. According to Dick Clough of the New Hampshire School Transportation Association (NHSTA), the Manchester agency has been the “inspection champion” for several years, with the largest number of buses in a state fleet that have all passed on the first attempt. Clay credits an excellent preventive maintenance program that’s an “all-year event.” He says the objective is to keep the buses in perfect order 12 months a year, “not just during inspection time.” Some of his mechanics have more than 20 years of experience. The drivers also deserve credit, Clay says, for their dedication to proper pre- and post-trip inspections. Keeping the buses in good running order isn’t a problem; however, finding and keeping good drivers is. “Everybody’s short of school bus drivers,” Clay concedes. He encourages an active camaraderie among his drivers and praises Patricia Gola, his assistant superintendent of transportation, for establishing a good rapport with them. Because drivers are difficult to hire and retain, Clay says operational efficiency becomes a critical factor in the agency’s success. “We’re always trying to tighten our belts,” he says. “We try to keep the routes as tight as possible and consolidate as much as we can.” Clay is past president of NHSTA and credits the organization with providing a forum for the exchange of useful information. “Little things like that add up to success,” he says.

NEW JERSEY
Frank D. Valcheck Inc.
Neshanic Station, N.J.

In an industry increasingly dominated by large, multinational companies, a former Navy diesel mechanic combines the personal touch with quality service. Frank Valcheck operates 40 school buses in Neshanic Station, about an hour’s drive north of Trenton. He contracts with two school boards — Bridgewater and Hillsborough — but also transports special-needs children to educational centers outside the school districts. Valcheck compares his operation to the corner grocery store, while industry heavyweights like Laidlaw and Ryder are more akin to the A&P. “You might be able to get a better price at the A&P, but the corner grocery store can provide one-on-one service,” he says. When a school district gets in a transportation bind, it won’t get lost in a bureaucratic maze if it contacts Valcheck. “As the chief cook and bottlewasher, I can make a decision right then and there,” he says. Valcheck started in the business with a single bus in 1963. He’s grown the business slowly but steadily and has weathered drastic changes. “I used to pay drivers four dollars per day, two dollars per route,” he says. These days, with the ongoing driver shortage, he’s careful to pay his drivers a bit more than local competitors. In addition, he arranges routes so his drivers can transport their own children to school. “That’s why I can keep them so long,” he says. Throughout the company’s growth, Valcheck has actively participated in the operation. In addition to occasionally driving a sub route, he also turns wrenches side-by-side with the company’s sole mechanic. Valcheck’s buses have a superior inspection and safety record. Last year, his bus terminal received a visit from New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, whose advisers thought it would be nice for her to be photographed with state motor vehicle inspectors at a model school bus operation.

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