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

Lean Times for School Transportation As Economic Crisis Deepens

Mood in Nashville is reflective as school districts and contractors wrestle with budget pressures created by weakening economy and Sept. 11 attacks.

by Sandra Matke, Managing Editor, and Steve Hirano, Editor


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The combined impact of the flagging economy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has created tax revenue shortfalls and forced public officials to scale back spending. And school bus operators, public and private, are feeling the pinch. That was one of the notes of concern registered at the 27th annual National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) Conference and Trade Show in Nashville. “Last year I was asked to cut my budget by 10 percent and they’re asking for 5 percent more this year,” said Mike Byrne, transportation director at Parkway School District in Chesterfield, Mo. “At the same time, they’re asking us to increase services.” Byrne was among many school transportation professionals attending the conference who voiced concerns about budget cuts. Rich Hansen, transportation director at School Districts 47 and 155 in Crystal Lake, Ill., said he was fortunate even to be attending the conference because of administrative pressures to cut costs. “I’m just happy to be here,” he said. At the state level, revenue shortfalls are taking their toll on school transportation programs. In a report to the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), Terry Voy, state pupil transportation director in Iowa, said state officials are being asked to consider charging a fee for school bus inspections conducted by his staff, reducing from two to one the number of annual inspections and going to electronic data recorders for field inspectors to save on printing and handling of forms. Florida’s state pupil transportation director, Charlie Hood, reported that an estimated $1.5 billion shortfall in state revenue has prompted many school districts to impose travel restrictions and hiring freezes. He said several statewide transportation meetings and workshops have been canceled. Despite these financial concerns, the mood of the conference was light. The Opryland Hotel, which also hosted the NAPT’s annual meeting in 1996, proved to be a popular site location. The hotel and convention center are under the same roof, which was convenient both for the delegates and the more than 110 exhibitors who displayed their products and services during the two-day trade show. The occasion was marked by the passing of the gavel from NAPT President Bob Pape, transportation director at Lawrence (N.Y.) Public Schools, to President-elect Don Paull of Capital Bus Sales in Leander, Texas. Paull begins a two-year term. Steve Kalmes, transportation director at Anchorage School District in Alaska, is the new president-elect. The learning curve
The NAPT’s educational program addressed a series of diverse issues. School violence, federal regulatory developments, driver recruitment and retention, 15-passenger vans and behavior management were among the topics covered. In addition, NAPT/TSI (Transportation Safety Institute) training workshops were offered each day of the conference. Topics included “Managing the Media,” “Crisis Communication,” “Media Relations,” “Overseeing a Fleet Maintenance Program,” “Team Building,” “Presentation Skills,” “Professional Demeanor,” “National Legal and Regulatory Issues in Pupil Transportation” and “Special Education.” For more information about the training program, call (800) 989-NAPT. Violence prevention
Christopher Dorn, a 17-year-old student at Central High School in Macon, Ga., performed a concealed weapons demonstration by pulling 53 different lethal weapons from his typical teen clothing. His goal was to show attendees what type of student clothing is conducive to weapons concealment and how to identify signs of concealed weapons. Requiring shirts to be tucked in is one way to alleviate hiding spots, said Dorn. Clear or mesh backpacks, which many schools are now requiring to reduce a student’s ability to hide weapons or drugs, are not effective deterrents, he said, as there are still many ways to conceal weapons in them. Among the weapons Dorn had hidden on his body were a folding machete, a blackjack, a crucifix knife, a school ID with a knife taped to the back, a razor blade in his mouth, a grenade, a sword and more. “Most of these weapons were taken out of schools and are commonly found in schools,” said Dorn. Dorn showed a video instructing attendees in visual screening techniques that help identify people concealing weapons. Here is some of what to look for.

  • Security check -- perpetrator feeling to be sure the weapon is in place
  • Jacket sag -- the pocket of the jacket where the weapon is concealed hangs lower than the other side
  • Clothing too warm for the weather -- to provide hiding space for weapon
  • One glove -- one hand left free to handle weapon
  • Visible weapon -- point of rifle is sticking out from beneath a coat, etc.
  • Unnatural gait -- not swinging the arm where weapon is located so as to prevent it from falling
  • Palming -- holding the weapon in the palm of one’s hand, in preparation for ready use
  • Blading -- turning body away from authority to hide/protect weapon
    Not in my school!
    Waukesha County Sheriff Bill Kruziki and Ted Hayes, safety and security consultant at Wausau Insurance, continued the emphasis on violence prevention in a session titled, “Not in My School! Proactive Controls to Prevent School Violence.” The workshop focused on a school violence prevention task force of 65 community members (including Hayes) that Kruziki formed in hopes of increasing school security in Waukesha County -- a task force that resulted in the publication of a “Not in My School” handbook for school administrators, teachers, parents and law enforcement personnel. Kruziki says it’s key that law enforcement and school officials work together on crisis management strategies, rather than developing independent plans. “We have our plan, they have theirs,” is a mentality that needs to die, he said. Here are some of the things Hayes and Kruziki learned through the task force, which included parents, law enforcement representatives, school officials, insurance carriers, the media and more.
  • When you train drivers, have them sign a form stating what you trained them in. That way you are covered in the event of an accident where training comes into question. “That one little paper with a signature on it can save your life down the road,” said Kruziki.
  • Appoint an appropriate spokesperson. “If you have a school bus incident, your transportation director is not the spokesperson,” said Hayes. He or she is too close to the situation and cannot be called on to take that role. Go through your administrator, who will go through the insurance company to appoint a public information officer.
  • Use the media to your benefit. Try using a scrolling bar at the bottom of TV screens to tell parents and community members what’s going on in the event of an emergency. Send a note home at the beginning of the year telling parents which TV or radio stations will broadcast information during an emergency.
  • Have the SWAT team come to your school in full gear each year to show kids what they look like so they are not frightened or confused if an event occurs that requires their presence. Prohibiting van use
    Brent Huffman, pupil transportation specialist for the Utah State Office of Education, spearheaded a successful drive for the ban of 15-passenger vans in student transportation in Utah. He presented a session on how to get your state legislature to pass similar laws. Huffman explained that one of the major roadblocks in the transition from vans to school buses is price -- about $8,000 difference between the two vehicles. However, he urged attendees not to be discouraged by price resistance. “While cost is an issue with the bean counters, it’s a safety issue for the rest of us,” he said. Before the law was passed, Huffman made some headway in convincing districts not to use vans by explaining that the state will not fund that method of home-to-school travel. “If you use a vehicle other than a school bus for a route, you will not be reimbursed for that route,” he told them. Many listened. But they continued to use vans for activity trips, which are not reimbursed by the state. Huffman got a state lawmaker friend to sponsor a bill prohibiting the use of vans for student transportation. Part of the package he sent to legislators included a video of an investigation conducted by NBC’s Dateline into a 15-passenger school van accident that killed a boy. Huffman also supplied lawmakers with several media articles on the risks of vans and a chart comparing the benefits and risks of vans to school buses. Pre-K seating guidelines
    Florida operators have made headway in struggling to meet NHTSA’s guidelines for the transportation of pre-school children in school buses. Jerry Klein, transportation director of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, told attendees about his challenges in meeting federal guidelines and provided some tips for making the transition easier. Florida developed its own guidelines for the seating of pre-school children, which are available at www.firn.edu/doe/bin00044/flguidelines.pdf. “We’ve encountered some things we didn’t expect,” noted Klein of the implementation of new guidelines. “It wound up being pretty expensive for us and much, much more complicated than I ever expected.” His first step was to send every school principal transportation procedures, from a superintendent level. Then he made sure parents were aware of their responsibility to be there for their children at drop-off time. Finally, he sought buy-in from and offered training to drivers and aides. “There was a lot of resistance,” he said, because drivers were now going to have to lift children into car seats. It became a bargaining issue with the union. Klein says his district made a training video for field supervisors, who are in charge of training drivers. He also sent out a survey to parents and discovered many more pre-k students than he’d realized were being transported. Next, he checked the seat spacing on every bus to be sure it adhered to the guidelines for installation of car seats. In some cases, he had to re-spec his buses for proper seat spacing. To enable drivers to identify which seats in each bus have been approved for car seat use, the district installed CSRS stickers in the windows beside each approved seat. Finally, he evaluated the seat belts on the buses and ordered belts that would safely accommodate a car seat. Klein says he’s currently working with the child seat manufacturer to produce a ready-reference training card for every driver and bus. Finders, keepers
    Although the driver shortage is diminishing in some areas, many school districts and contractors are still having a hard time finding and keeping drivers. In a presentation on recruitment and retention, suggestions were offered by four panelists: Randy McLerran, Oklahoma’s state pupil transportation director; Bobby Gaffney, transportation director at Woodford County Schools in Versailles, Ky.; Lenny Bernstein, transportation director at Haverstraw-Stony Point Central School District in Garnerville, N.Y.; and Dennis Essary, transportation supervisor at Beaverton (Ore.) School District. McLerran says recruiters need to target key demographics. Retired teachers, for example, are good candidates because they already have experience working with children. The extra income derived from driving a school bus might help to supplement their fixed income. The best recruiting tool is your existing driver corps, says Gaffney. “We rely on word of mouth from our drivers,” he says. “And we haven’t had a driver shortage for the past 10 years.” Providing medical insurance and other benefits also helps, he adds. Bernstein, whose district contracts with Haverstraw Transportation, says driver retention hinges on creating a family atmosphere. “You have to let your drivers know that you’re not just looking for a warm body to put behind the wheel,” he explains. Essary provided examples of no-cost or low-cost methods of recruitment. During the summer, he asks schools to place recruitment messages on their marquees that include starting salary and a phone number. In addition, he holds “park-outs” at shopping malls, putting teams of drivers in charge of wooing potential drivers. “Drivers are in charge of recruitment,” he says. “They hold contests to sign up the most prospects and get prizes for vendors.” Another technique that Essary uses is the single-page “tear-out” that can be posted on bulletin boards in laundromats, shopping centers, colleges and seminaries. The contact phone number is tabbed along the bottom so interested parties can tear a copy. Spotlight on equipment
    More than 140 vendors participated in the two-day trade show at the convention center in the Opryland Hotel. Of particular interest, Blue Bird Corp. unveiled its new conventional school bus built on a Ford chassis. Because GM’s arrangement to supply Blue Bird with the B-7 conventional chassis has reached its final stages, there was particular interest among attendees in the Blue Bird-Ford model. Meanwhile, GM displayed its new medium-duty C5550 cutaway chassis, designed as a platform for high-capacity Type A buses. The 2003-model year chassis will have gross vehicle weight ratings of 16,000 to 19,500 pounds. Corbeil displayed its new large Type A bus, with a capacity of 54 passengers, built on the new GM chassis. With its high passenger capacity, the bus seems out of category as a Type A vehicle, and was described as a Type A-3 by a Corbeil representative, although such a category had not been designated. For more information about new products from industry manufacturers, see the 2002 Fact Book, which is due out early next year. The 2002 NAPT Conference and Trade Show will be held in Greensboro, N.C. For more information, contact the NAPT at (800) 989-NAPT.

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