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October 01, 2000  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Great Fleets Across America, Part III

(Massachusetts - New Jersey)


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MASSACHUSETTS
F.M. Kuzmeskus Inc.
Easthampton, Mass.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 105 buses
Students transported daily: 11,000
Schools served: 28
Number of drivers: 90
Bruce and Darlene Reipold, owners

Bruce and Darlene Reipold, owners of F. M. Kuzmeskus, take pride in its year-round driver training programs. Every bus driver is CPR certified, though certification is not mandatory in Massachusetts. “We think it’s a good thing to have,” says Darlene.

In addition, all bus drivers regularly attend defensive driving courses and receive ongoing training tailored to their particular needs. A new bus driver receives a different type of training than a 14-year driver, and drivers in the fall get different training than they do in the winter. There is no such thing as “one size fits all.” The Reipolds take all the driving courses along with the drivers. “We don’t make our drivers do anything that we wouldn’t do ourselves.” This includes washing, sweeping or fueling the bus.

All maintenance is performed at the company’s state-of-the-art maintenance facility in nearby Gill, its main service base. A little over a year old, the fully self-contained facility uses well water and a septic system to ensure ground water remains uncontaminated. Bus washing involves a draining system that funnels the used water and grime into a holding tank and pumps it into an evaporator system. The water is boiled and steam is released into the air. Once a week, maintenance workers clean sediment out of the bottom of the tank, eventually hauling it away. At no time does any water from bus washing or regular maintenance go into the ground.

Regular oil changes are not a challenge, as waste oil is kept in a boiler-like tank to be burned and used in the company’s radiant heat system during winter. Radiant heat warms up the concrete, thereby heating the maintenance facility from the floor up, so there is no waste oil product whatsoever. All anti-freeze product is also recycled, eliminating the need for disposal.

The Reipolds have been in the bus industry since 1987, when they purchased the F.M. Kuzmeskus bus company from Darlene’s father. “We’re a family-owned business, and we’ve had roots in the community for years,” says Darlene.

 


MICHIGAN
Monroe Public Schools
Monroe, Mich.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 75 buses
Students transported daily: 4,800
Schools served: 21
Number of drivers: 75
Operating budget: $2.6 million
Annual mileage: 345,000
Driver wages: $10.99 per hour to start; average: $14.50

Monroe Public Schools transports approximately 4,800 students to 21 public and private schools and preschool facilities using a fleet of 75 buses. The district staggers start times into five tiers, giving some drivers up to five runs a morning. “It takes a lot of routing and coordination,” explains Kim Hooper, transportation director.

Though Hooper says his district doesn’t have violence problems, he takes steps to nip behavior problems in the bud. All of Monroe’s buses are equipped with camera boxes, with seven cameras rotating among the fleet. About once a month, Hooper will show tapes to groups of problem students in an effort to improve their behavior. “If it’s not a really bad situation, we’ll call the kids out of class and have them watch it,” he explains. Having a good rapport with assistant principals earns him their support in pulling the students from class and in assigning punishments based on misbehavior documented in videos.

With student safety as a top concern, Hooper conducts weekly training sessions with groups of 10 drivers at a time. The results are clear — this year, Monroe drivers set a new record for being accident free.

Monroe’s buses are maintained in a garage that has space to house 12 buses. “Our facility is actually an old barn that’s been converted,” says Hooper. All four garage mechanics are contracted workers employed by First Vehicle Services, a fleet management company.

In the four years Monroe has been contracting out its maintenance services, Hooper says there have been a lot of improvements. All mechanics are now ASE certified. The program earned Monroe an award this year from the Michigan State Safety Commission for having 72 of 73 buses pass on first inspection. “This is the best inspection the district has had in the 14 years I have been director of transportation,” says Hooper.

 


MINNESOTA
Anoka-Hennepin School District
Coon Rapids, Minn.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 350 buses
Students transported daily: 36,000
Schools served: 40 public schools, several nonpublic and alternative settings
Number of drivers: 450
Annual budget: $14.5 million
District size: 176 square miles
Annual mileage: 6.3 million
Driver wages: $10.50 to $14 per hour

Located on the border of Minneapolis, Anoka-Hennepin School District covers 13 municipalities in 176 square miles of urban, suburban and rural areas. In addition to 40 conventional public schools, the district transports students to early childhood facilities, teen pregnancy programs, work transition programs and ESL centers.

To accommodate the district’s 36,000 student riders in the safest, most cost-effective manner, Anoka-Hennepin contracts with three bus companies. Chuck Holden, transportation director, manages these contracts with two route coordinators, a safety coordinator and an office staff.

“Our transportation system is a unique partnership of contract bus companies that share routing duties with a central transportation office,” explains Holden. The district provides the contract companies with the number of buses and the route configurations and the companies assign routes to buses and create combinations. “Initially, we had a real us vs. them attitude. Including the contractors really built a lot of trust,” says Holden.

The district and contractors work together on several safety programs. A safety committee that is composed of drivers, managers, principals and parents meets monthly to revise the discipline policy, review bus accidents and establish safe walking distances, among other things.

The district recently instituted an online discipline reporting system. Previously, the district was printing about 20,000 five-page discipline reports a year, which took several days to get from driver to principal. “It was an expensive and ineffective process,” says Holden. Now, contractors get instant e-mail notifications when discipline reports are entered.

 


MISSISSIPPI
Petal School District
Petal, Miss.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 40 buses
Students transported daily: 2,800
Schools served: 4
Number of drivers: 40
Clinton Tapper, transportation director

The Petal School District runs 40 buses to four public schools in a city of approximately 30,000 people. The district’s transportation supervisor does all of the driver training in-house while the transportation director, Clinton Tapper, doubles as the district’s facilities director. An operations manager does the routing, which will soon be made easier with the use of a new computerized routing system. Tapper’s two mechanics benefit from fleet maintenance software that allows them to monitor fuel usage, keep track of inventory and more.

The district has two mechanics on staff who are responsible for maintaining 40 school buses, 10 maintenance vehicles, two driver-education cars, one administration car, two police cars, four tractors and many lawn mowers. The maintenance staff does almost all repairs itself, in its three-bay shop. Mechanics perform service inspections on all vehicles every three months and routine service every 3,000 miles. They keep new tires on hand, choosing not to recap because buses get better mileage on new tires. The lead mechanic keeps plenty of supplies in stock so there will be no delays in repairs. “I’m extremely proud of our mechanics, because our downtime is just about nothing,” says Tapper. One of the department’s newest projects is painting the bus rooftops white, which Tapper says will keep the vehicle interiors cooler.

Though he currently has three sub drivers on staff, Tapper never loosens the reins on driver recruitment. He advertises in the local paper, at the job placement bureau and in areas where retirees gather. What has been most successful so far has been draping a bus in a banner and parking it in a conspicuous spot. “That probably generates more business than anything,” he says. His newest idea is to recruit college students majoring in education. By working with the university, he was able to advertise for a program in which students who work full time can start earning state retirement money right away, rather than waiting for their teaching careers to begin. “They could do that for three years and they’ve already got three years of retirement saved up,” he says.

 


MISSOURI
Atlantic Express Group
St. Louis

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 599 buses
Students transported daily: 14,700
Schools served: 10 school districts
Number of drivers: 585
Service area: 586 square miles
Driver wages: $9.25 to $12 per hour
Tom Brown, district operations manager

When Atlantic Express took over the contract for St. Louis Public Schools five years ago, the company inherited several senior drivers and offered wage increases. The driver shortage, however, still hit hard last year. In response, company officials are stepping up their recruitment efforts. “Now we’re going above and beyond to provide incentive bonuses,” says Tom Brown, district operations manager. Qualified drivers receive a bonus of $1,000 and untrained new hires get a bonus of $500. Drivers are paid during training, which is done in-house and lasts about two weeks. The company has tripled its advertising budget in the past couple of years and is making appearances at job fairs in hopes of finding driver prospects.

Atlantic Express runs a unique safety program in which retired police officers are employed as safety supervisors. The St. Louis operation currently employs 11 of them, each of whom is responsible for supervision of 50 routes. The former officers are hired to supervise the metropolitan area they previously worked in, so that they know the streets and the populations. “They’re out on the road whenever we have routes running, and they’re responsible whenever we have a fender bender or unruly students on the bus,” explains Brown. They act as an intermediary with law enforcement, accompany students to the hospital in emergencies and monitor drivers on their routes to ensure they’re making the right stops and driving safely. “The use of retired police officers really brings professionalism to the operation,” says Brown.

The St. Louis operation has four terminals and employs 585 drivers, 110 monitors, 30 mechanics and about 50 other staff members. Operating 413 large buses and 145 small buses on a daily basis, Atlantic Express offers preschool and desegregation busing in St. Louis and surrounding counties, in addition to regular and special-needs transportation for the St. Louis school district.

 


MONTANA
Big Sky Bus Lines
Great Falls, Mont.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 53 buses
Students transported: 3,000
Schools served: 22
Driver wages: $7.75 per hour
Founded: 1982
Dave Houtz, operations manager

Finding and retaining school bus drivers can be a daunting task, but Big Sky Bus Lines in Great Falls, Mont., had an even greater challenge just before the start of school — hiring out nearly a dozen of its school buses to transport firefighters to the wildfires that have ravaged the state.

“We’ve got school buses going up roads that you wouldn’t believe,” says Dave Houtz, operations manager at Big Sky. Eleven of the company’s 53 school buses were still out on the fire line two days before the start of school. “We’re up against the wall,” Houtz said of the possibility that the buses — and their drivers — would return before the opening school bell.

Normally, Big Sky doesn’t encounter many problems with its assignment — transporting 3,000 students to 22 schools in Great Falls Public Schools. Co-founded by brothers Dan and Temple Beavers in 1982, the company enjoys a fine reputation with the school district, parents, students and state police, which gives its buses high marks.

Moreover, the company has enough drivers to cover its routes, even with an hourly wage of only $7.75 (with a four-hour guarantee). But Houtz says he would like to pay the drivers more. “We feel our drivers are worth at least $10 an hour, but we need to get more money from the school district before we can raise their wages,” he says.

Houtz says all of Big Sky’s buses are powered by propane. The more recent additions to the fleet have been converted to bi-fuel, propane and gasoline, while the older buses are propane only. He says the price of propane has gone up recently, but added that the fuel is still cheaper than gasoline. “Plus we have the added benefit of running a cleaner fuel, which is good for the environment,” he says.

Just like other areas of the country, Great Falls has its behavior problems aboard the bus. Houtz says middle-schoolers, especially, have created problems for drivers. To give drivers a reasonable chance of succeeding with their middle-school runs, Houtz recently spent 60 hours realigning routes so that middle-school students would ride the same bus in the morning and afternoon. This gives drivers half a chance of learning their names and personalities, which helps to reduce trouble on the bus. “It’s better for student and driver,” he says. “The drivers will know the student better and vice versa.”

 


NEBRASKA
Wisner-Pilger School District
Wisner, Neb.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 7 buses
Students transported daily: 150
Schools served: 2
Service area: 200 square miles
Driver wages: $8.37 to $10 per hour
Jerry Loewe, transportation director

Quality rather than quantity is the hallmark of this school bus operation in northeast Nebraska. Jerry Loewe, transportation director, says his buses cover four main bus routes operating in the towns of Wisner and Pilger, which are about seven miles apart. The combined population of the two burgs is 1,800. About 150 children ride the buses daily.

“Families here appreciate the yellow school bus,” says Loewe. The community includes many farmers, and some of them drive for Loewe, who himself spent 10 years as a farmer before undertaking a transportation career. “It’s very difficult to make a living on a farm,” he says. “We have farmers who drive for the extra money. They do an excellent job of working with our students.”

Without farmers to meet his driving needs, Loewe would be challenged to cover his routes. He says there’s “always” a driver shortage. In a pinch, he relies on principals, custodians and even the superintendent to drive.

The fleet’s safety record is excellent. “We haven’t had any accidents, per se, and no fatalities,” Loewe says. “I think we might have caught a few mail boxes here and there.” Loewe handles driver training himself and serves as a certified trainer for several other counties in Nebraska.

With a fleet of only seven buses, Loewe handles much of the simple maintenance himself. “If we need any major work, we take the vehicles to a local truck repair shop,” he says. Fortunately, the school board is sensitive to Loewe’s equipment needs and provides funding for regular upgrades, which, in his case, is a new bus every couple of years.

To keep up with developments in the industry, Loewe is an active member of the Nebraska School Transportation Association and has served as president for the past year. Being involved in the association has helped him learn about advances in equipment, especially with the advent of electronic engines and anti-lock brake systems. “It’s a constant learning experience,” he says.

 


NEVADA
Washoe County School District
Reno, Nev.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 300 buses
Students transported daily: 16,000
Schools served: 89
Operations budget: $12 million
Driver wages: $10 to $15.50 per hour
Kurt Svare, transportation director
Craig Falconer, assistant transportation director

Experienced leadership has helped to keep Washoe County’s transportation program running efficiently despite average enrollment growth of 2,000 to 3,000 per year. “My boss [Kurt Svare] has been here for 32 years, and I’ve been here for 33 years,” says Craig Falconer, assistant transportation director. That’s 65 years of experience.

“It helps to have people who know where the bodies are buried, so you don’t have to step on them again,” says Falconer. “It also helps that all of the department administrators started as bus drivers. So we understand the pressures of driving.”

But it’s more than savvy managers that keep 16,000 students safe as they ride to and from school. The drivers deserve the credit, Falconer says. To recognize the drivers’ efforts, the department names an Employee of the Month (with a designated parking spot) and holds a drawing among drivers with perfect attendance for three $100 awards (paid for by transportation managers).

In addition to excellence on the job, Falconer says department employees contribute selflessly to the community. For example, they collect new clothing for homeless children who ride their buses. He estimates that 200 schoolchildren live in shelters, vans, motels, parks and shared apartments. “We’re able to transport a good-sized chunk of them,” he says, adding that this busing requires extreme routing flexibility.

Although recruitment continues to be a problem, especially with the district’s explosive growth, bus drivers who stay for more than a year are likely to stay forever, Falconer says. “We think we’re making a difference in kids’ lives,” he says. “In some cases, we know we are. It keeps you going.”

Maintenance of the fleet’s 300 buses is performed at three shops. The average bus is 10 to 11 years old, but Falconer says they are well preserved. And they need to be. “This fleet is much older than we would like,” he says. “We haven’t been able to buy for replacement for seven or eight years. We buy for growth.”

 


NEW HAMPSHIRE
Dail Transportation
Epsom, N.H.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 104 buses
Schools served: 12
Driver wages: $9.50 to $12.50 per hour
Founded: 1977
Phil Dail, owner

In New Hampshire, where it’s not unusual for school bus fleets to pass annual vehicle inspections with 100 percent approval, Dail Transportation is still “well above average.” That’s according to Phil Dail, company president, who says his fleet of 104 buses has not had an inspection failure in the past eight years. “Not even a light out,” he says.

Dail is proud of his fleet, but even prouder of his staff. Although there has been a serious driver shortage for the past couple of years, Dail Transportation has managed to keep the routes covered by making sure that its retention rate is high. “Once we get a driver, they usually stay with us unless they move out of the area,” Dail says.

Dail says he and his wife Pat, the company’s vice president, attribute the staff’s loyalty to relatively high wages, uncompromising support and friendship. “They’re our employees and our friends, and we try to socialize with them as much as we can,” he says.

To keep morale high, the company publishes a monthly newsletter, holds monthly breakfast meetings with drivers and driver trainers and stages a spring outing to Pleasant Lake in Deerfield, in which staff and family members are invited to eat as much steak and lobster as they can. “We do all the cooking,” Dail says, referring to himself and his wife.

Dail says he started the company in 1977 because he was dissatisfied with the school buses that were serving his children’s schools. “The condition of the buses was deplorable,” he says. Rather than place his children on those buses, he bid for the district’s three-bus contract — and won.

Although he had no background in school transportation, Dail had experience in commercial trucking. “The transition to school buses was relatively easy as far as the maintenance of the vehicles,” he says. But he had to learn about a whole new base of customers. “That includes teachers, principals, parents and students as well as the community, everyone who comes into visual or verbal contact with any of our people or services,” Dail says.

 


NEW JERSEY
B.R. Williams Inc.
Woodstown, N.J.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet composition: 68 buses
Students transported: 1,800
School districts served: 7
Driver wages: $12 per hour (average)
Founded: 1935
Riley Williams, owner and president

Although he turned over the day-to-day operations to his daughter, Chloe, three years ago, Riley Williams still likes to maintain a presence in the bus yard. “I’m here every day one way or another,” he says. “If I’m not here, they know where to find me.”

Williams also takes his presence on the road. “I still drive part-time, so I’m out there with [the drivers],” he says. That ground-level contact is important because it helps drivers feel comfortable with him. “That makes a difference,” he says.

Williams, president and owner, inherited the operation from his father, Benjamin, who founded the company in 1935. With a fleet of 68 buses, the company serves seven school districts in south New Jersey. His biggest challenge is “trying to keep all the parents happy,” Williams says.

New drivers receive 18 hours of training before their CDL test and then spend a week driving with one of four in-house trainers. In-service training includes a trio of three-hour sessions in the evenings. Williams says his drivers, mainly housewives, are well prepared for their responsibilities, but he constantly reminds them to put safety first. “I tell them to always look twice and to take their time,” he says.

The average wage for drivers is $12 an hour. The driver shortage has not crippled the company, but Williams is always in a recruiting mode. “We’re not short, but we can always use extra drivers,” he says.

Although he’s at the bus yard nearly every day, Williams still finds time to serve as president of the New Jersey School Bus Owners Association. He commits about 12 hours per month to the association, attending monthly meetings and legislative sessions.


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