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October 01, 2001  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Great Fleets Across America, Part I

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


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This year's crop of Great Fleets represents excellence in all facets of student transportation -- safety, efficiency, innovation, pride, morale and more. In the short profiles that cover the next 30 pages, these exemplary operators will share with you some secrets of their success. Whether your operation is small or large, rural or urban, public or private, you'll find a wealth of ideas that you can "borrow" to enhance the safety and efficiency of your own transportation program. Make the most of it and enjoy!

ALABAMA
RUSSELL COUNTY SCHOOLS
Seale, Ala.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet 63 buses
Students transported daily 3,150
Schools served 8
Daily mileage 3,750
Drivers 55 (full time)
Average driver wage $9,000 per year

Teamwork is the glue that holds together the transportation department at Russell County Schools. The school district relies on cooperation between drivers, mechanics, administrators and other staff to meet the pressing tasks associated with student transportation. Says Transportation Supervisor John Rudd, “When you live in a rural setting like we do, everybody knows everybody. It is more of a team attitude than anything else.” The mechanics, drivers and attendants are all friends and, in many cases, related to each other. Their familiarity with one another allows them to work together more fluently. Teamwork in Russell County is not limited within the school district, however. A close relationship exists throughout the county. “Here at our bus shop, we have set up the Russell County fueling authority. We handle fueling for every county vehicle, and this has made our working relationship with all of our county agencies much closer,” says Rudd. His facility handles fueling for the engineer’s office, road crews, sheriff’s department, county commission, garbage crew, fire department and the district attorney’s office. ÒBy working with all these agencies, we have enhanced our community standing. Anytime I need something, I just pick up the phone, and someone is there on the spot,” he says. Another definitive quality of Russell County Schools is its dedication to preventive maintenance. Every bus is inspected before the school year and then routinely throughout the year. “We change filters, fluids, lubrication points, suspension systems, seats, latches and light bulbs. When we get through each bus at the end of the summer, it has been thoroughly checked out from the front bumper to the rear bumper,” says Rudd. Rudd says he gets his staff to put in the necessary extra time and effort by preaching attitude. A sign posted outside the shop reads: “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” “It basically boils down to attitude," says Rudd. “If you think you can do something you will do it, if you think can’t get it done, you won’t get it done.”

 


ALASKA
LAIDLAW TRANSIT INC.
Ketchikan, Alaska

FLEET FACTS
Fleet 30 buses and 1 boat
Students transported daily 1,500
Schools served 8
Drivers 23 and 10 attendants
Driver wages $13.50 per hour to start

Wind, snow and icy roads are common obstacles to student transportation in northern areas like Alaska. Chunks of floating ice, logs and other debris are even more imposing. Bust this is the reality at Laidlaw Transit in Ketchikan, Alaska, where students in Thorne Bay take a school boat to and from their daily lessons. Shortly after 5:00 each morning, Roger McCormick, skipper of the Mayflower Star school boat, begins his pre-trip inspection. Just as most school bus drivers do, he checks fluid levels, belts and hoses and then begins heating the boat. Once on his route, he and his deckhand (who also happens to be his wife) battle winds, water currents and darkness as they navigate waterways between the homes of students. Although these seem like unnaturally harsh and dangerous conditions, the daily boat trips are conducted with the same success and safety as conventional pupil transportation. “Having a school boat opens up a whole new window of challenges for our operation,” says Lorrie Eastham, branch manager for Laidlaw. The company maintains 30 buses, trains drivers and drills both staff and students on school bus safety procedures in accordance with state requirements. In addition, it must deal with the extra stress of employing a boat maintenance staff, licensing a boat captain and exercising man-overboard drills. McCormick must meet the minimum state standards for driving a school bus, while maintaining a Master’s boating license from the U.S. Coast Guard. To obtain his license, he was required to spend at least 360 days at sea on a passenger vessel. All in all, Laidlaw’s Ketchikan operation has excelled in safe student transportation. Eastham says that the entire staff of 55 employees is part of one unified safety committee that meets frequently. “Because we are a small operation, we act like a family,” she says. “When there is a problem, we really band together and watch out for each other.”

 


ARIZONA
PEORIA UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
Glendale, Ariz.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet 175 Buses
Students transported daily 6,856
Schools served 45
Average annual mileage 1,588,780
Drivers 120
Average driver wage $11.50 per hour
Operating budget $3.3 million

Operating a fleet of 175 buses, including 55 buses for 12 special-needs schools, Peoria Unified School District places a strong emphasis on training. To support and qualify its drivers -- many of whom play a major role in the large special-needs program -- the transportation department exercises a strict and thorough training regimen. It has seven state-certified driver trainers working in-house, including two CDL third-party trainers. Special-needs drivers and attendants also assist with the training. To further supplement the training system, outside experts are brought in to conduct instructional sessions. Even with previous experience, new hires must train for a minimum of 20 hours behind the wheel and 24 hours within a classroom environment. For applicants without driving experience, requirements are significantly stricter. The training at Peoria Unified goes beyond the norm with sessions on alternative fuels and customer service. Special-needs drivers receive added instruction on student disabilities, wheelchair lift operation and wheelchair and passenger securement practices. They are retrained on these subjects every 90 days. Says Dean Humphrey, director of transportation, “Staying current with the medical needs of our students is overwhelming at times. Add to this the problems in hiring and retaining qualified staff, and you have a difficult job to accomplish.” Still, Humphrey says that Peoria Unified’s transportation department sets very high standards and holds its employees accountable for meeting them. “While we have excellent support from our administration, governing board and community, our department employees are the ones who make our system work,” he says. Peoria’s fleet is composed of buses made by Thomas, Blue Bird, AmTran, Carpenter, Ward and Collins, so mechanics must have a good knowledge of many different models and manufacturers. There are 10 mechanics, one dedicated parts person, a secretary and a fleet supervisor. Most of the mechanics attend trade schools while employed, and the acting shop foreman provides ongoing training. The maintenance facility is currently completing the transition to a paperless shop. Work orders, fuel management and routine service inspections are all monitored on PCs.

 


ARKANSAS
HUNTSVILLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Huntsville, Ark.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet 40 buses (31 in operation)
Students transported daily 1,800
Schools served 4
Drivers 31
Average driver wage $47 per day or $8,373 annually
Daily mileage 2,300
Operating budget $858,724

During the 1999-2000 school year, Huntsville Public Schools requested a performance audit from the Arkansas state director of pupil transportation. The audit was separated into eight categories -- driver recruitment and retention, bus replacement, drug and alcohol testing, safety training, maintenance, transportation discipline, driver records and transportation policy. After receiving the results of the audit, the district formed a transportation planning team to research and write a corrective action plan for each of the eight areas of the audit. Administrators, drivers, secretaries, teachers and transportation staff joined together and developed a comprehensive transportation plan for the district. Since then, the transportation department has made dramatic improvements. Today, the department excels in the area of transportation planning. The team meets periodically to address concerns and make necessary revisions. Team members have examined important issues such as bus stop safety, record keeping, district boundaries, routing, emergency preparation, state training sessions, field trips, fire safety, substitute drivers and communication. The result has been an overall increase in safety and an improvement in the work ethic of the staff. “Our biggest challenge is safety,” says Gary Pierce, Huntsville’s transportation supervisor. Because the district covers an area of about 494 square miles with an average bus route lasting about 90 minutes each way, keeping students safe is no easy task. “In a rural area, we travel a lot of dirt roads where kids cross in front of buses, and you never know when someone is going to come around a corner.” But Pierce attests that the school district is prepared to meet the challenges it faces because of the quality of its employees. “Our drivers are our strength.” he says. “If your buses don’t break down, it is less of a headache, but it’s the people that make this business work.”

 


CALIFORNIA
WEST COUNTY TRANSPORTATION AGENCY
Sebastopol, Calif.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet 80 buses
Students transported daily 4,000
Schools served 23
Approximate annual mileage 700,000
Drivers 60
Driver wages $14 per hour

Thirteen years ago, West County Transportation Agency was formed as a joint powers agreement by eight school districts that decided to consolidate their transportation efforts into one pupil transportation entity. The districts made the agreement in response to rising transportation costs and a lack of state funding. The resulting cooperative agency has maintained a high quality of service while simultaneously reducing costs. “When the districts that make up West County were trying to provide student transportation services on their own, it was just a big headache for them,” says Michael Rea, director of transportation. “The state was under-funding transportation departments, and legal requirements kept getting harder, so it was too much responsibility for these administrators to handle.” West County, which now serves 11 member schools and one non-member school, reduced operating costs by consolidating the work and providing extra services to supplement the agency’s income. Some of these extra efforts include providing field trip transportation to non-member schools, providing driver training services to non-member organizations and providing maintenance services to non-member school districts, municipalities and fire districts. The added revenue keeps member costs reasonable. The agency’s driver training program provides drivers with well beyond the state-required minimums pre- and in-service training. Training sessions frequently feature guest speakers who cover topics such as gang violence, personal performance, stress levels and medical issues. Agency mechanics are ASE certified and run a completely computerized diagnostic program on the bus fleet. They are often sent to classes and trained by manufacturers on specific products. West County provides a professional work environment, with uniforms, consistent training, clean facilities and a far-reaching employee rewards program. In addition, almost half of the fleet runs on alternative fuels, and the operation has received multiple grants for meeting clean-air criteria.

 


COLORADO
ASPEN SCHOOL DISTRICT
Aspen, Colo.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet 19 buses
Students transported daily 800
Schools served 3
Drivers 16 to 20
Driver wages $20 per hour

Running a school bus operation in Aspen can be a very difficult task. Aside from the normal challenges of transporting students safely, the Aspen School District RE-1 must deal with an average annual snowfall of 250 inches, the dangers of winding, narrow mountain roads and a town that is frequently dominated by tourists. Moreover, Aspen has a generally wealthy local population that makes it harder than usual to find bus drivers. Frederick Brooks, director of transportation and grounds for the district, says that he is constantly battling the driver shortage. “As you can imagine, in an affluent area like this, most of the people you draw from are retired people or housewives,” he says. “In Aspen, those people don’t need to drive a school bus.” Of course, running an operation in Aspen has its perks too, as evidenced by the methods of employee motivation and rewards used by Brooks. “We give employees a two-day-a-week ski pass if they are here for 60 days, and we also hand out golf shirts with the school insignia to instill a little school pride. Good drivers are also issued a ski jacket and a vest with the school insignia,” says Brooks. Although it can be a burden to find drivers, retaining them is not as big a problem for the district. Serving three schools in a close-knit community, Brooks and his staff of drivers and mechanics take a great deal of pride in their jobs, placing high emphasis on safety and preventive maintenance. Aspen has one of the only fleets in the state to have seat belts for every student. Every bus is also equipped with automatic tire chains, retarder systems, strobe lights and reflective strips. Brooks says his district has taken various measures that are seldom seen in most other operations. “We relocated the fuel tanks to the left side of the vehicle, allowing us to put our storage compartments on the right side of the bus. We use these compartments for skis or any large objects kids bring to school, so that parents don’t have to drive to school,” he says. “We try to discourage driving to school as much as possible.”

 


CONNECTICUT
SCHOOL TRANSPORTATION SERVICES INC.
North Branford, Conn.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet 58 buses
Students transported daily 4,220
Approximate daily mileage 4,500
Annual mileage 805,000
Drivers 60

Supplementing their Connecticut-based school bus dealership -- School Lines Inc. -- Dave and Debbie Lintern purchased a contractor company 12 years ago and began building on its solid reputation and emphasis on family values. The name of the company has changed, but the mission remains the same: to safely transport students while establishing a reliable community resource and pleasant work environment. “We are all just a big family,” says Debbie Lintern, vice president of School Transportation Services, which specializes in special-needs transportation. “We wouldn’t ask an employee to do anything that we wouldn’t do ourselves. For instance, if we ask someone to wash a bus, we will go out and help them with it.” She also says that drivers are constantly stepping in and helping each other without asking anything in return. This dedication and cooperation among the staff starts with the safety trainer, Lucy Collins. Collins, who trains every driver and attendant, holds about six safety meetings a year and has frequent solo driving sessions with drivers she is concerned about. According to Lintern, “She runs the gamut, covering issues like handicaps, accident prevention and Operation Lifesaver.” Her training sessions are further enhanced by an annual visit from the fire department, which discusses emergency procedures such as how to administer the Heimlich maneuver and what to do during a fire. The training has paid off as several drivers have been publicly commended, and one driver even saved a child from choking to death. The operation consistently holds functions like parties and ice cream socials to recognize employees. Additionally, monthly and yearly bonuses are given for attendance. The result is a willing and able staff that takes pride in their work and does whatever is necessary. Lintern says, “One driver learned sign language just to communicate with a deaf student.” Communication is important in an area with burdensome language and economic barriers. The company compensates by staying involved in the community, keeping its drivers informed and in touch with each other and being heavily involved with COSTA, the state’s school bus contractor association.

 


DELAWARE
CARAVEL ACADEMY
Bear, Del.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet 16 buses
Students transported daily 500
Schools served 1 private academy
Drivers 14

In 1978, Robert C. Peoples founded Caravel Academy with a vision of providing children an educational opportunity and a chance to compete in dozens of different sporting events. Today, the achievement of his dream is in many ways a result of the tireless efforts of the academy's transportation department. Serving a large area with no regulated district boundaries, the school picks up students in locations throughout Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland and transports them to school, field trips and countless sporting events all over the region. This is an impressive accomplishment, especially considering that the academy primarily provides door-to-door service rather than using pick-up and drop-off points. “Geographically and demographically we are expanding very rapidly, so dealing with the growth and distance between children’s homes is our biggest challenge right now,” says Judy Moore, director of transportation. “In fact, we even have two children right now who take a train from Philadelphia, and we pick them up at the train station.” The age diversity of children riding the school buses is extensive, ranging from 3-year-old passengers to 12th graders. The fact that these students ride together every day without incident is a testament to Caravel’s commitment to safety and behavior management. The drivers are well trained and committed to the children. Behavior problems are so few that drivers rarely have to discipline students, leading to a more pleasant work environment. Subsequently, driver turnover has never been an issue at the school. Moore says that because parents pay for their children’s transportation, they make more of an effort to ensure that kids follow all school bus safety procedures. Caravel has an incentive program that keeps drivers from leaving for other jobs. Some of the perks include attendance bonuses, accident-free rewards and three paid personal days per year. The school also takes care of all expenses that drivers incur when going through the annual process of CDL re-certification. “The most common thing I hear from our drivers is: ‘For me to leave here, they would have to fire me.’ We really have no staff retention problems,” says Moore.

 


DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
GALLAUDET UNIVERSITY
Washington D.C.

FLEET FACTS
Fleet 30
Students transported daily 125
Schools served 3
Approximate daily mileage 700
Drivers 19 and 12 monitors

Gallaudet University is home to a world-renowned series of institutions serving deaf and hard-of-hearing students, including Kendall Demonstration Elementary School (KDES) and Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD). The transportation department at Gallaudet provides transportation for KDES and MSSD commuter students, athletic teams attending competitions and students engaging in extra-curricular activities. It also provides a shuttle bus service to and from Union Station in downtown D.C., which can be used by students, faculty, teachers and staff, a vehicle lease service, and a messenger service. At Gallaudet, communication is essential to successful administration of services. Thus, all staff members are certified in sign language. Employees take sign language classes on campus and are required to reach specific skill levels. They do this in addition to holding CDLs and being trained every year in CPR, first aid and defensive driving. Drivers receive another 40 hours of safety training on top of this. The long routes make the training necessary, as buses travel into Maryland and Virginia, picking up and dropping off students door to door. Darnese Nicholson, transportation manager, says the skill and dedication of the drivers is a product of several factors. “Our drivers have a heightened sensitivity because all of the students have disabilities, so they are very committed to the children.” She adds that the drivers have the same children year after year, “allowing a better rapport among parents, students and drivers.” The employees have been recognized for their skill level. Drivers Jacqueline Campbell and Lawrence Curtis teamed up to take fourth place in the National Special-Needs Team Safety Roadeo, held March 3 in Phoenix, Arizona. Campbell and Curtis were tested in various exercises, such as maneuvering a school bus through traffic cones and backing a bus into tight areas. Their success was due in large part to a practice course set up by Gallaudet where they, and other drivers, could exercise their driving skills.


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