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November 01, 2004  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

What You Can Learn From the 5 Worst School Bus Operations

We’ve given you the best — now we present the worst. The following operations have demonstrated overwhelming deficiencies in major aspects of pupil transportation. In each case, an industry expert analyzes the operation’s problems and reports on how best to remedy them. The point here is not to hurt anyone’s feelings but to gain insight on corrosive defects and how to eliminate and prevent them at any operation. (By the way, don’t bother trying to look any of these cities up on a map.)

by Thomas McMahon, Associate Editor


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At war with the community

Rough Public Schools, Foulmouth, S.D.
The transportation department at Rough Public Schools may not be the worst overall. In fact, it does some things pretty well. The buses are meticulously maintained, and the fleet even scored the highest rating on state inspections last school year. The operation also won a grant that provided enough finding to retrofit 50 of its vehicles with emissions-reducing particulate filters.

But if you’re a parent or other member of the Foulmouth community, you don’t have a clue about any of that. You pick up the local newspaper, the Foulmouth Flier, to find front-page coverage of bad pupil transportation news on almost a daily basis. Parent-pay fees increased. Ten buses don’t show up on routes. Tractor-trailer slams into school bus, injuring four students. And so on.

Parents constantly feel the need to speak their mind about issues such as these, but the department doesn’t seem to have a functional way to field the complaints. Contact information, as well as other transportation information, is difficult to track down. Those who are persistent (as most are) and do reach the transportation office via phone speak with a receptionist who is overwhelmed with messages and can’t put the callers through to the director because, “She’s in a meeting.” Many complaints don’t get a response, and many surface in the “Letters” section of the paper.

The transportation department’s long-running driver shortage has been stoked in the past few years by all the bad publicity. Potential school bus drivers are reluctant to sign up because of the bad rap. In a vicious cycle, the worsening shortage causes even more bad press as the operation can’t muster enough substitute drivers to cover all the routes and children are left waiting at the curb.

Fortunately, morale is still high among those who already work in the department. The staff members are tightly knit and prone to vehemently defend each other and the operation as a whole. Unfortunately, they don’t always go about this in the most prudent manner.

Driver-trainer Larson Red took it upon himself to write the Foulmouth Flier a fuming letter — which the paper printed — in response to an article that questioned the drivers’ abilities and training. “Anyone who thinks these drivers don’t know what they’re doing should go back to school themselves,” he wrote. “Then we’ll decide whether to let you ride the bus.”

Additionally, drivers have been known to get into lengthy debates with parents at bus stops, delaying runs and creating more fodder for the newspaper.

Ask the experts

Rich Hansen, who retired in March, served for more than 23 years as director of transportation for the school districts that suffered the Fox River Grove school bus/train tragedy. He now owns the transportation consultant company TyBEG LLC (P.O. Box 3432, Carmel, IN, 46082-3432).

Unfortunately, the issues at Rough Public Schools (RPS) can be found at too many school bus operations across the globe. RPS appears to have two major issues: a driver shortage and no clear procedure for addressing parental concerns.

The shortage of drivers exacerbates any other issues in the operation, as management's focus is centered on simply running routes with little time left for other operational issues. A crash course in creating an applicant flow is absolutely necessary. If the skills are not present in the operation, hire an outside company to assist.

At the public school operation I directed, we brought a company in to, in part, assist us in driver recruitment. Their assistance, along with my knowledge of the local employment atmosphere, helped us get to the point where we could be very selective and service our obligations adequately. It was amazing how many crushing issues evaporated when we were not distracted by a driver shortage.

Dealing with parental concerns is a fact of transportation life. You cannot ignore it. Parents have every right to question how their children are being dealt with. Therefore, you must have a good procedure for handling these phone calls.

Regardless of what else is happening, parents must be responded to promptly. The more they are put off, the more the issue foments. Tell them the truth, not some lame, stalling tactic. If you messed up, tell them. Drive to their home and chat in person. It makes you a "real" person instead of some faceless bureaucrat. Go to school board meetings several times a year and give a public report in front of the parents and press.

If the main problem in your operation is a driver shortage, call the local press and do an interview. Get it out in the public so they know what's going on. Make sure you are the one providing the public with transportation news in your operation, not the evening news. This means getting the good stuff out there, too, not just the bad. {+PAGEBREAK+}

Mutiny against the leadership

Ann Arkey County Schools, Amok, Ky.
If you wanted to find out who is in charge of the transportation department at Ann Arkey County Schools, the answer you’d get would depend on whom you ask.

“I’ve been at this operation for 35 years, so I pretty much run the show,” says Donny Growler, a veteran driver and self-appointed “team leader.”

“Since no one else has been getting the job done, I’ve been forced to take the reins,” says P.M. Strictly, shop foreman.

“I’m the boss, applesauce!” says Judy Judge, a kindergartner and bus passenger.

Technically, the person in charge of the transportation department is Hugh Shymann, who joined the district as transportation supervisor two years ago. At the time, a man named Benson Hermetic was director of transportation.

Hermetic was as mysterious as he was intimidating. He was rarely seen outside of his office, but when he was, you would hope he didn’t see you as well for fear of a verbal attack.

Anyone who needed to contact him would slip a note under his door. They did not e-mail Hermetic, because Hermetic did not have and was decidedly against having a computer. Fixed in his old-fashioned mindset, the man resisted any change to the operation that involved computerization.

District officials brought in Shymann, who had 14 years of experience at a neighboring community, with hopes that he’d be able to implement some updates and increase efficiency. He wouldn’t get that chance until Hermetic finally accepted a long-standing retirement package from the district at the end of last school year.

However, the rest of the transportation department — free from the tyranny of the Hermetic era — seized the opportunity to do their own thing. Factions formed, and leaders, such as Growler and Strictly, rose up. Most staffers remain suspicious of Shymann, who came in from a nerighboring county.

To make matters worse, the majority of drivers are unable to control their more rowdy students, such as the aforementioned Judge, and the buses have become increasingly chaotic. This resultant environment has led to several accidents, including one in which a driver was hit in the head by an airborne apple and veered off the road into a ditch.

Hermetic, it seems, objected to student management training, which he felt was unnecessary and referred to as “hippie nonsense.”

Ask the experts

Christopher Andrews, a partner at Transportation Advisory Services, offered the following advice to the good people at Ann Arkey County Schools. Transportation Advisory Services has offices in Walworth, N.Y., and Orlando, Fla. Andrews can be reached at (800) 858-9615.

Ann Arkey County Schools has a problem that we occasionally come across — ineffective leadership. We would start by interviewing everyone within the transportation department, as well as building principals, central office administrators and PTA/PTO representatives. We feel it is important to involve all stakeholders in the process, as some may provide insights not shared by others.

As part of the interview process, we look for those parts of the program that are working well, as well as those that are experiencing problems. It is easier to build upon successes than failures.

Upon completion of the interviews, we would sit down with the administration to outline a plan of action. To start with, we would recommend monthly transportation staff meetings, organized and run by Hugh Shymann, the supervisor. To instill some sense of teamwork, however, we would suggest that at the first meeting he ask for input from the staff concerning topics they would like covered at future meetings. An important part of each meeting would be student discipline training, along with the implementation of a student discipline policy. Mr. Growler, the veteran driver and self-appointed "team leader," should be asked to gather information about driver-training programs to bring into the meetings and possibly present them, if qualified.

In an effort to recognize the work that the mechanics perform, the shop foreman should be asked to gather information on the ASE bus mechanic certification program, with the objective of getting him and his staff the testing, certification and recognition they deserve. He should also be asked to sit down monthly with the supervisor to review maintenance activities of the previous month and lay out his plan for activities for the following month.

The supervisor should also be looking at the variety of transportation software that is available to make his job more efficient and then present his findings to the administration.

The administration should remind the supervisor that he is responsible for gaining control of this department. While he should be given their support, they should also give him a timeline for implementing all of these recommendations over a 90- to 120-day period. Failure to meet this timeline should have detailed consequences. {+PAGEBREAK+}

Morale needs a shot in the arm

Fealon Down Bus Co., Quarrel Bay, R.I.
With one of the highest average driver wages in the state, one would think that Fealon Down Bus Co., would have close to no turnover. And one would be dead wrong.

There may be no problem attracting new applicants, but once they witness the bickering, gossiping and backstabbing that pervades the operation, they tend not to last long. Those who try to tough it out because of the excellent pay often break down after a few years. Students and their parents have become accustomed to finding a new driver on their route each week.

There is one employee who has stuck with the company through it all, but it’s not because he’s extremely loyal. It’s because Reilly Down is Owner Fealon Down’s nephew, and he doesn’t feel like trying to get a job elsewhere. Though he clearly doesn’t enjoy working with children and often talks about how he should’ve been an archaeologist, Reilly has been a school bus driver for all of the company’s 10-year history. And he seems to be at the route of the morale debacle.

Reilly has a nasty habit of spreading rumors about other members of the operation. He goes out of his way to permeate jealousy and turn people against each other. Other drivers adopted the practice of talking behind each other’s back, and they constantly feud over route activity and activity trip assignments.

Recently, Reilly told one driver that another driver — one of her good friends — only got to drive one of the new model buses the company had just bought because she was secretly dating the company’s manager, Donald Sapsucker. While the decision was truthfully made based on her seniority, the driver and Sapsucker actually were secretly (or so they had hoped) dating. Reilly had spotted them in a local movie theatre. When word of this got around the operation, staffers immediately became suspicious and began to question everything.

Even with all the blatant mischief Reilly has caused, Sapsucker won’t try to fire him because he’s worried that the elder Down will veto the decision and turn against him. In fact, Sapsucker has never even mentioned Reilly’s behavior to Fealon, who works from his home office.

However, the morale problem can’t be blamed entirely on Reilly. Last year, a driver left a sleeping first-grader on his bus on an afternoon with sub-zero temperatures. Three hours later, the girl was found dead from hypothermia. As it turned out, the driver had been in an intense dispute with his wife prior to the run and was visibly disturbed. The incident still hovers like a dark cloud above the company.

Ask the experts

George Jones III, who has more than 18 years of experience in the pupil transportation industry, provides the following advice on how to mend the morale problem at Fealon Down Bus Co. Jones is the principal consultant and founder of Pupil Transportation Consultants LLC in North Salem, N.H. For more information, visit www.pupiltransportationconsultants.com

.

It would appear that Fealon Down has little interest in owning a safety-oriented, profitable business. He has allowed Donald Sapsucker to let his nephew create terrible morale problems within the company, resulting in high levels of employee turnover.

That turnover, in addition to being financially detrimental to the company, has led to some level of inexperience and lack of focus, which may have contributed to the death of a child. It is time for some sweeping changes at Fealon Down Bus Co.

To begin with, Down must become more involved with the day-to-day operation of the company. He must, by his words and actions, make it clear to Sapsucker not only that he supports him in his efforts to bring to an end the debilitating rumor mill that his nephew has created, but also that he expects him to do so.

Further, Down must make it clear to everyone at the operation — especially his nephew — that he expects the rumors to end and that he is prepared to back that up with severe disciplinary action, which could include termination.

Finally, Down must seek out and implement team-building strategies that will help create a positive working environment.

This scenario certainly demonstrates a known fact about working environments. Pay is rarely the first concern of people in the workplace. The environment in which people work is far more important to them, and management must pay close attention to ensure that the working conditions are as good as they can possibly be. {+PAGEBREAK+}

It is broke, so do fix it

Shamble Valley School District, Sideline, Wash.
If you’ve ever driven along the streets of Sideline, chances are good that you’ve seen a Shamble Valley School District bus on the side of the road. Not picking up students, mind you, but waiting for someone to pick it up.

Year after year, the school bus operation breaks its own record for the percentage of buses that fail state inspections. Breakdowns are as frequent as school days, and sometimes these mechanical glitches lead to serious accidents. In one case, a wheel fell off one of the buses as it traveled down a local highway, throwing the vehicle off course and into a ditch. Oftentimes, a driver will turn off his or her bus at a school, only to find minutes later that it won’t turn back on.

“These problems just spring up out of nowhere,” says Floyd Jiffy, shop foreman. “It seems like a streak of bad luck more than anything — I mean, we stick to a very strict oil-change schedule.”

Jiffy and the sole other mechanic at the operation spend much of their workdays driving out to service stranded vehicles. Fortunately, the district has more than enough drivers and more than enough buses to pick up the slack. However, the majority of buses are old enough to be in college, and a whopping 20 percent of the fleet was manufactured before 1977.

Transportation Director Tammy Pointer brought up the idea of buying new buses to the district board of education three years ago, but the meeting was unsuccessful, and she has been reluctant to try again since then.

“The superintendent was just adamantly opposed — he saw transportation as a ‘periphery’ concern,” says Pointer. “Of course, there’s a new guy in his seat this year, so who knows what he would say.”

The bus drivers at Shamble Valley seem to be more a part of the problem than a part of the solution. Recently, Jiffy asked one of the drivers to pop the hood on his Type D, transit-style bus, upon which the driver poked around the front of the bus for 10 minutes in a confused state.

According to driver Hans Kleen, “Those two in the shop aren’t pulling their end of the bargain. They’ve got to spot these mechanical problems before they surface so I can stay focused on my job — driving the bus.”

Ask the experts

Brad Barker has more than 30 years of experience as a school bus mechanic and is currently shop supervisor for Park City (Utah) School District. He can be contacted at www.schoolbusfleet.com/forum in the Professional Garage forum.

The solution to the problems exhibited here should start with the transportation director. The school board and administration need to be given a convincing report by the transportation director of the money that can be saved by upgrading the bus fleet, providing an updated and modified training program to all drivers and intensifying or starting a preventive maintenance program. The safety of the students is at stake. They cannot afford to jeopardize safety.

I recommend: 1) a thorough survey of the entire bus fleet, 2) training the trainer and designating an individual or individuals to be driver-trainers and 3) reviewing and modifying or implementing a preventive maintenance program. Document all findings and changes that are made. These will be used in the director’s report to the administration and school board.

The director should do her homework. She needs to be prepared with a detailed report to give to the school board that shows costs of improving the transportation services but also the money that can be saved down the road by doing so. Emphasize safety. Use other successful, comparable districts as examples.

Make everyone — from the administration down to the bus drivers — accountable for their actions. If heads need to roll, then so be it, but only as a last resort. Creating a team of players all working for the same goals is the key.

Additionally, the ratio of buses per mechanic is too wide. The ratio should not be higher than 25 buses per person. In reviewing the maintenance program, hiring one or two more qualified mechanics would be a great help. The bus fleet may be reduced in size and operate better if new buses were purchased to replace old, worn-out buses that require lots of maintenance.

For the size of the district, the fleet could operate very well with 70 buses instead of 86. The average age of the bus fleet should not exceed seven years. {+PAGEBREAK+}

Safety last

Wipeout Bus Lines Inc., Big Kuasha, Hawaii
The drivers at Wipeout Bus Lines are known for breaking records. Unfortunately, those records are for breaking buses. “Preventable accidents” is the name of their involuntary game.

Already this school year, 10 incidents have occurred in which drivers backed into such stationary objects as cars, poles and — in one case — a large, dolphin-shaped mailbox. Fortunately, these mishaps resulted in minor damages and no injuries. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Last month, one of the buses was traveling long a particularly curvaceous road when the driver lost control, and the bus tumbled down a small embankment. Fourteen children were taken to the hospital. Investigators found that the driver was going too fast and became distracted when her water bottle fell and rolled around on the floor.

In September, four school buses that were transporting a high school track team to a regional championship meet collided with each other when the lead bus slowed down abruptly. The accident forced coaches to pull several athletes who complained of neck and back pain, from their competitions. Additionally, the top sprinter suffered a broken toe when one of his teammates, who was holding a shot-put and visualizing a great toss, dropped the orb during the collision. An investigation found that the lead driver was intoxicated.

According to Noah Kashun, president of Wipeout, the problem is not in the buses themselves, which are new and well maintained. “It’s the drivers — they need to relax a bit,” he says. “Our training is pretty extensive, but they don’t seem to remember everything we told them for too long.”

But driver Buzz Ted says that he and the other have to rush to get their runs done on time. “Some of the routes are way too long, and we get a lot of flak if we show up late at schools,” he says.

Kashun says the school district constantly threatens to cancel the contract. “Lucky for us, though, there aren’t any contractors in the area,” he says.

Another of Wipeout’s biggest problems is stop-arm running. The problem has grown so bad, and the company has done so little about it, that most motorists drive right by when buses are loading or unloading students. That no children have been injured or killed during the process seems to be a stroke of luck that could end any time.

Ask the experts

George Horne is the southeast regional manager for the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute. For more information, call (877) 456-0141 or visit www.ptsi.org.

These are the salient facts and observations, as presented:

 

  • Accidents are frequent and range from “minor” to “major.”

     

  • Most accidents are “preventable” on the part of school bus drivers.

     

  • Some injuries are exacerbated by the behavior of passengers (e.g., the athletic trip).

     

  • The training regimen, “pretty extensive,” seems to lack substance, and follow-up assessments with imposed consequence must be non-existent.

     

  • One driver speaks of tight schedules. With an average of approximately 47 passengers per vehicle, overloads do not appear to be a problem, but “some of the routes are way too long,” according to the same driver.

     

  • Stop-arm running pales in comparison to more systemic problems with the service provider!

    These actions are imperative:

     

  • The school district must take charge and hold Wipeout Bus Lines accountable for its level of service. (A contract with performance penalties can be effective, but only if it is enforced.)

     

  • The president of Wipeout must stop making excuses and take charge of his company.

     

  • Training must be made effective, with post-training observations and evaluations made mandatory.

     

  • The drug/alcohol-testing program must be reviewed.

     

  • Consequences for poor driver performance must be imposed by the employer.

     

  • Passenger management techniques must be applied on routes and activity trips.

     

  • Schedules and route designs must be evaluated. Staggered bell times could be helpful.

     

  • If Wipeout does not perform to acceptable standards and another company is unavailable, the school district should take over the operation itself.

    Making excuses for mediocrity and for passenger injury is a sure pathway to a court of law and likely will result in a revolt within the educational community.

    Children will be scarred literally, and the school district will be scarred figuratively for years to come unless the situation is turned about by means of drastic measures being taken.


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