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October 01, 2005  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Great Fleets Across America (Part I)

After a brief hiatus, Great Fleets returns for the sixth edition. This time around, we've changed the formula by getting in-depth with 10 top-notch pupil transportation programs rather than focusing on 50. Each of the following profiles aims the spotlight on one operation's success, revealing the best practices they've employed and the challenges they've overcome. Part I includes Brevard County Public Schools in Cocoa, Fla., and Garden City (Kan.) Public Schools.


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Divided by Water, United by Bus


Brevard County Public Schools
Cocoa, Fla.

The service area for Brevard County Public Schools extends 75 miles north and south along a central Florida stretch of Atlantic coast and inward, anywhere from 15 to 30 miles. It is so elongated that the district’s transportation department has been divided into four accessible areas, with parking and a maintenance shop at each. The central bus compound is located in Cocoa, home of the Kennedy Space Center.

The message that Transportation Director Mike Connors drives home at every in-service and at the opening of every driver-training session is how important drivers are to the educational process of Brevard County students. He shows a slide saying, “Education begins with transportation.”

And it works. Following a recent district-wide in-service, a bus driver said to Connors, “I want you to know that we realize you truly believe in what you are saying as to how important we are as drivers.”

“Our drivers are the best in the state,” Connors says. “They are caring and considerate and do a terrific job following all our rules, regulations and policies.”

Leading by example
Connors leads the way in exemplary fashion. He is a nationally certified director of transportation and actively participates in both the National Association for Pupil Transportation and the Florida Association for Pupil Transportation. In addition, he was a member of an accident review/reporting committee that was recognized for work done to automate Florida’s accident-reporting system and is being used as a model on a national level.

The training that new drivers receive under Connors’ leadership is thorough. In the 40-hour classroom week, trainees learn about pre-trip inspections and acquire bus driving skills on a one-on-one or two-on-one student-to-trainer ratio.

After an on-the-road training and full certification testing regimen for the CDL, they are assigned their particular area, and they go through one more certification step with students and a driver trainer on board to make sure everything is done correctly.

Incentives boost retention
An incentive that helps to keep the turnover rate down at 6 percent is a guaranteed seven-hour work day. If drivers are not on the bus route, they’re assigned other transportation-related work to accumulate the 35-hour weekly minimum. The district offers a monetary reward for perfect attendance at 45-day increments. A recently added program issues a bonus to a school bus driver for bringing in a referral who is trained and works for at least three months.

Applicants don’t incur any out-of-pocket expenses while training to become drivers for Brevard County Public Schools. The district pays for the 40-hour training class, the pre-employment drug test, the physical examination and the CDL.

Picnics, parties, lunches and breakfasts are held at each transportation area. Various certificates and pins are awarded to honor drivers for such feats as accident-free driving and years-of-service milestones.

Connors values the input of drivers in achieving greater efficiency of bus routes. They receive forms to evaluate the safety of the routes and alert the district of anything that doesn’t seem safe, of changes at bus stops, construction in an area or any other concerns.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Connors considers driver recruitment his top challenge. “We never can sit back and say we have all the drivers we need,” he says. “With my four transportation areas, there may be two areas that are doing very well, but I may be short on the other two.”

Other challenges occur on a daily basis. Maintaining public trust in school transportation is difficult when a parent is upset. “But as area supervisors, we do our best to relate how important safety is to us and that we are doing our utmost to assure the safety of the child,” Connor says. “We never ignore a concern of a parent. We always make sure we get back to them, document that we are doing so and make sure we have developed the kind of relationship with parents that’s necessary to do the best we can in school bus transportation.”

Top-notch in the shop
The department’s fleet of 500-plus buses is well maintained. In recent state inspections, it scored 98 percent on physical inspection and 100 percent on paperwork.

Even though the maintenance shops and parking areas are geographically separated, they all work from the same procedural manual. According to Chuck Stevenson, assistant director in charge of vehicle maintenance, this helps to maintain consistency and predictability. The shop was recognized as one of the Top 10 Maintenance Programs by SBF in 2002.

State law requires buses to be inspected every 30 school days, and all other maintenance is scheduled by mileage — oil every 12,000; filter and fluids at 50,000; coolant at 100,000 miles. The fleet is running on an 11-year bus replacement schedule.

The fleet is primarily made up of Thomas Built Buses conventionals, about half of which are built on Freightliner chassis and the other half on International Truck and Engine Corp. chassis. The rest of the buses are Blue Bird and Carpenter conventionals.

Great leadership
Stevenson describes Connors as “very knowledgeable on transportation and a great people person who understands the district’s problems and offers solutions.”

Transportation Specialist Mike Livingston concurs with Stevenson that Connors is very knowledgeable and patient, adding, “He trusts me to follow my own good judgment. If there’s a question, I get input from him, but basically he gives Chuck and me free rein to do what we need to do.”

Livingston, who received the Sure-Lok Special-Needs Transportation Award at the 2004 National Association for Pupil Transportation conference, coordinates transportation for the district’s 2,000 special-needs students. Seventy buses in the fleet are equipped with wheelchair lifts, but Livingston said many kids are included on the regular buses as often as possible.

“When I first came to the district, we’d have many buses come down the same street, picking up kids to go to the same school,” he says. “Now they are only separated when they have to be. Sometimes those bus rides are up to an hour long, as dictated by the unique Brevard County land and waterscape.”

— CLARE ADRIAN

 



FLEET FACTS
Buses — 515
Students transported daily — 28,500
Total students in district — 79,000
Schools served — 89
Transportation staff — 460
Area of service — 995 square miles
Average driver wages — $13/hour
{+PAGEBREAK+}

Even the Buses are Teamed for Success


Garden City Public Schools
Garden City, Kan.

All summer long, LISA followed BOB around like a lovelorn puppy. But LISA is no more a puppy than a cow. She’s a school bus on a mission, with BOB as her leader.

The name LISA is an acronym for “Lunch Is Served, Alright?” and BOB is for “Books On the Bus.” The two revamped old school buses, painted white and decorated to announce their wares, have been bringing free meals and donated books to kids of Garden City (Kan.) Public Schools for the past two summers. BOB has been active for the past four summers. During the school year, both buses participate in parades and school events.

There is a note of excitement in Transportation Director Dianne Hahn’s voice when she describes the bus mobile caravan. “You should just see the kids. They love BOB. They all know what you are talking about when you say the name.”

Excitement converts to admiration when Hahn mentions the real strength behind the district’s school bus fleet, the drivers. “Our drivers work hard. The average number of hours for drivers is six and a half. We have an after- school program, so they bus anywhere from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Drivers have to be dedicated to drive that length of time every day, 164 days out of the year.”

Hahn knows the rigors of driving school buses well, having driven the routes for 15 years before moving on to gofering for mechanics, dispatching, clerical work in the transportation office and then to her current directorship of 10 years, all in the Garden City district. So she knows well the terrain that her drivers traverse: the flat, dry, treeless plains and the irrigated farmland and towns like Garden City itself, which was named for the trees, flowers and vegetables that early pioneers made a special effort to bring and plant in the desolate area.

Garden City is located in the southwest corner of Kansas, 50 miles west of Dodge City, the district’s greatest rival for high school sports. Out-of- town runs for football, basketball and volleyball games lengthen some of the days for drivers.

Their hard work and long hours are not taken for granted. Drivers are awarded a shirt at 100,000, 200,000 and 300,000 miles of driving. For years of service, they receive engraved pen and Eversharp sets from the department and plaques and certificates from the district.

Perfect attendance merits awards, and each month, the three drivers that are named Employees of the Month can claim front-row parking places. In October, as part of National School Bus Safety Week and National School Bus Driver Day, Hahn says the administration prepares pancakes and sausage for the bus drivers after they come in from their morning runs. “It’s nice to know we have the administration’s support and recognition,” Hahn says.

“Our group is top notch,” maintains Jeff Dawson, driver trainer, who has been with the district for 10 years. Dawson gets drivers off to a solid start with classroom instruction, accompanied by videos with discussion, hands-on training, familiarity with the vehicle, learning how to perform pre-trip inspections and how to operate the vehicle on the road. In addition, drivers attend regular monthly safety meetings, defensive-driving classes and first aid and CPR training.

High on the list of topics during training sessions and meetings is student discipline — teaching drivers how to transform negative behavior into a positive experience.

“How to do that when you have the students sitting behind you and you’re operating a vehicle through traffic, that’s the struggle drivers have,” Hahn says. “They learn different techniques to deal with the various issues.”

Drivers also deal with the special-needs challenges of extra equipment and shortened individual schedules. Every day, the buses make about 330 door-to-door stops for special-needs students.

{+PAGEBREAK+} The challenges are one reason Hahn believes turnover is low. “They like the variety. No two days are alike. Every day is a challenge either with the weather or with route changes,” she says.

A pleasant department atmosphere is another attribute that contributes to staff retention.

The department celebrates birthdays with a monthly cake, Secretaries’ Day with a luncheon and gifts and Mechanics’ Day with a barbeque. It occasionally holds potluck dinners for all of the 40 staff members. Hahn buys a turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas luncheons, and everyone else brings the trimmings.

Dispatcher Diana Keesling, who has been with the department for nine years, says that “everybody gets along really well, and the drivers do a super job. This is the second week of school, and it has smoothed out already.”

When needed, Dawson says that everyone pitches in to drive, from himself, to mechanics, to office workers.

Hahn calculated that last year the transportation department had a total of 386 years of experience.

The longevity in the department is especially notable among the five mechanics on staff. Head mechanic Eddie Guerrero, who has been with the department for nearly 23 years, and “Tiny” Robin Walker, with 16 years of service, are surpassed by 25-year veteran Jim Brush. Along with an apprentice and wash person, the group works together in a spirit of camaraderie.

“If something needs getting done, it’s a team effort, whatever it takes to get it done,” Guerrero says. “And we take care of everything, bumper to bumper. The only time we farm out work is when something is under warranty or it’s a factory recall.”

The department maintains a fleet of 49 buses, a variety of vans, cars and Suburbans, as well as a local community college fleet, in a fairly new building that has six drive-through bays.

Guerrero and his crew apply a thorough preventive maintenance routine every 4,000 miles, and buses are rotated or replaced every eight to 10 years. Special equipment on the buses includes child-reminder systems, tinted windows, white roofs, remote-control mirrors and air-operated doors.

With a highway patrol office right across the road from the shop, Garden City buses get priority on state inspections. The highway patrol troopers who do the inspections like to use the district’s facility to train their rookies. They inspect the fleet early and conduct their training before inspecting the smaller fleets in their division of the state.

Guerrero attributes the computerization of the bus routes to Hahn’s persistence in convincing the administration of the efficiency that could be achieved. Now, with software by VersaTrans of Latham, N.Y., “Every kid has a point A to point B, and every driver gets a route that is timed and maps,” Guerrero says.

“There’s a variety of things that make life easier,” he adds. “As a mechanic/substitute driver, one of those things is having all the [route] information at hand when going out in the dark, trying to figure out where all the stops are.”

— CLARE ADRIAN

 



FLEET FACTS
Buses — 49
Students transported daily — 2,580
Total students in district — 7,567
Schools served — 23
Transportation staff — 40
Area of service — 928 square miles
Average driver wages — $12.76/hour

Click here for Part II of Great Fleets


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