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

Great Fleets Across America, Part 2


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OKLAHOMA
Tulsa Public Schools
Tulsa, Okla.

Bob Haddox, executive director of transportation at Tulsa Public Schools, wants to build the most technologically advanced school bus fleet in the nation. To that end, Haddox is equipping many of his fleet’s 75 special-needs buses with global positioning system (GPS) equipment and laptop computers. They should be ready for action in January, he says. The objectives are to track these buses in real time and to update and revise routes automatically, every day if necessary. This system would also provide parents with automated tracking information that could be obtained using a phone and a PIN number. To fund this high-tech movement, Haddox restructured the department and cut eight positions. In addition, he expects the GPS technology to provide operational savings of 20 to 25 percent. “We think that we can pay for the entire system without any increase in dollars spent by the district through the application of technology,” he says. Being on the cutting edge is nothing new for Tulsa’s transportation department. Three years ago, the department decentralized the operation into six mini-fleets of approximately 150 buses. Each mini-fleet is responsible for all aspects of the operation, including the budget. Although the program has required some learning-curve adjustments, Haddox says overhead has been reduced. “What I’m seeing happen is that they’re controlling expenses better because it’s their operation.” Tulsa’s transportation operation is Oklahoma’s largest, with 320 buses transporting approximately 20,000 children daily. In addition to its regular routes, the department transports children to about 18,000 field-trip locations each year and provides rental services to the public. Innovations aside, the district is having the same driver recruitment problems as the rest of the country. Haddox says he was 80 drivers short at the start of the school year. “We’re competing with everyone who’s offering full-time work,” he says. The only bright spot is that existing drivers can work eight hours per day or more.

OREGON
Oregon City Public Schools
Oregon City, Ore.

Transportation Director Jane Frey says two of her most experienced drivers recently retired after 25 and 28 years on the job. Two other drivers, who’ve been with the district for nearly two decades, finally moved up the ladder. “They’ve waited 19 years to become senior drivers, to get that eight hours per day,” she says in amazement. “That’s a family when you’re together that long.” Family and community are important in this 125-square-mile district, located about 20 miles south of Portland. The vast majority of the district’s 61 drivers live within the community, which is what Frey prefers. “Drivers who live within the district take ownership of their responsibilities,” she says. “We’re expected to go the extra mile. Since we’re part of the community, we’re glad to help.” The district transports approximately 4,100 students per day, about 90 percent of the student population. Most of the district is rural, and many neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks. Frey says a driver was upset by a parent’s request to move a bus stop two bus lengths closer to her home. “I went out to the bus stop with her and asked her, ‘Would you want your 6-year-old to walk here?’” The driver shook her head. “Then why would you want someone else’s 6-year-old to walk here?” Because the driver shortage has had minimal effect on her program, Frey can be particular about whom she hires. She tries to bring aboard drivers with a professional appearance and attitude that inspire the trust of the community. “When the driver opens that door, and the parent looks at that driver, I want them to think, ‘Yes, I can entrust my child to that person.’” Frey says the district’s maintenance program, handled by three mechanics, is outstanding. The buses are pulled in every 1,500 miles for preventive maintenance. “For some of our vehicles that means they are serviced every week and a half,” she says, “because we’re so spread out.”

PENNSYLVANIA
Van Lear Equipment
Reading, Pa.

Terry Van Lear, owner of Van Lear Equipment, runs a family business with his wife and two daughters, sees that his operation participates in the community through Easter Seals and multiple sclerosis fund raising, and aims for a one-on-one approach with his 215 employees. Because of the personal touch, Van Lear is able to maintain a great 178-school bus fleet operation. Van Lear Equipment transports 12,500 students daily, serving six school districts, two vo-tech schools and several private schools. Van Lear believes that by running a hands-on operation, he and his family are not isolated from the workers, and that is the key to the company's success. The Van Lear drivers are in “constant” training, with four safety classes this year — up from three last year. The concept of the classes is simple, yet effective: How to make a safer ride for passengers. All bus maintenance and repairs are provided by staff mechanics on at the company’s two garages. Interestingly, the state government is a direct competitor with Van Lear for contracts. Because of this recent government competition, the company has taken a keen approach to streamlining operations, keeping costs down while maintaining their high safety standards. The recent addition of a safety officer contributes to these goals in two ways. Since the officer's job is to ensure the company's safety, he is able to supervise and help the drivers more directly. Having a safety officer also reduces Van Lear's potential liability, so the company qualifies for a reduced rate with their insurance carrier. The company has worked out deals out with fueling sites, leading to a greater discount in fuel prices. By staying in touch with the drivers, the community and his vendors, Van Lear is able to run an efficient operation.

RHODE ISLAND
Westerly School Department
Westerly, R.I.

The smallest state in the union has produced a school bus operation with a big heart. The Westerly School Department has a corps of drivers who strongly support each other as well as the school community. “We know our kids, and we know our parents,” says 13-year driver Mary Becker. Rarely do the drivers switch routes, which helps to strengthen their bond with the students. “There have been drivers who have made a difference in these kids’ lives,” she says. “Sometimes we’re the only friendly faces they see all day.” Becker says the drivers are more than coworkers. “We’re also good friends,” she says. That friendship is extended throughout the bus compound. “We have a wonderful rapport with our two mechanics,” she says, adding that drivers occasionally “motivate” the mechanics with home-baked apple pies and other goodies. “Those buses are ready to roll — rain, snow or any kind of weather,” she says. Transportation Director Betty Tillinghast says she’s had drivers who’ve been on the job for more than 30 years. That’s equivalent to her own longevity. She started driving a bus in 1968 and worked her way up to her current position in 1980. “I love working with these people,” she says. The district transports approximately 3,500 children using 42 buses and 28 drivers. The operating budget for this school year is $1.3 million. The biggest challenge, Tillinghast says, is “trying to keep the parents satisfied with safety issues.” Changing the location of a bus stop is a common concern among parents. Sometimes their demands are reasonable; other times, quite the opposite. “Sometimes I just have to bite my lip,” she says.

SOUTH CAROLINA
Lexington School District #2
West Columbia, S.C.

“A Driving Force in Children’s Lives” is the catchy motto of the transportation department at Lexington School District. But Jim Pope, the district’s transportation director, contends there’s real substance behind the slogan. “We’re real proud of how far we’ve come in the past five or six years,” he says. “The district has placed transportation on par with other programs. They understand the importance of getting young people to school.” According to Pope, the district’s 80 school buses transport approximately 4,800 students to 17 locations each day. The operating budget, $1.2 million, covers the salaries of 80 staff members, among other things. Pope says these 80 employees provide the framework for the department’s overarching success. “It’s the people that make the program,” he says. Pope doesn’t discount, however, the importance of a comfortable, well-appointed transportation facility. And he has exactly that. About three years ago, the district unveiled a new six-acre transportation yard in West Columbia, located adjacent to Columbia, that included an 1,800-square-foot administrative building, a break room equipped with cable TV and a VCR, a paved bus parking lot with 90 numbered spaces, a bus wash area and a CDL skills training and testing area. The entire site is fully lighted and secured. The previous transportation facility was primitive by comparison, Pope says. It was located next to a hill behind a high school and had an unpaved parking area, which complicated some of the onsite repairs. “Creepers don’t roll real well on gravel,” Pope points out. (The state owns and maintains school buses in South Carolina. Most of the maintenance is done at a state facility in Lexington about 15 miles from the transportation center.) As an added benefit, a commercial greenhouse was built on the transportation grounds. It’s operated by special-needs students who are involved in a transition-to-work program. Pope says the students are a welcome presence at the facility and seem “very relaxed” in the presence of the transportation staff. Pope says his staff has suffered the typical amount of turnover, “but we also have a large number of people who have been with us for seven years or more.” The drivers enjoy their time with each other. “They’re always doing things together,” he says. “It really is a family atmosphere.”

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