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November 01, 2007  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

School Board Members Speak Out on Transportation

An effective tranportation department requires the solid backing of the school board. Find out what board members think about their school transportation programs, from walking distances to driver shortages to bus procurement.


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Jerry E. Baldwin

Polk School District, Cedartown, Ga.
Some school district board members have a special connection to transportation. Jerry E. Baldwin, a school board member at Polk School District in Cedartown, Ga., is one of those folks. His wife has been a bus driver for the county fleet for 32 years, driving a 72-passenger bus.

Baldwin, a retired industry master mechanic for a chemical company, has served on the board for 11 years and has about a year left on this current four-year term. He has served as the nine-member board’s chair three times. Your wife has been a bus driver for your school district for 32 years. How does that influence you as a school board member?
I think it gives me better insight into what the transportation department’s needs are. Plus, I have been the chairman of the transportation committee several different times during my time on the board and have been on the finance committee too. That helps me understand our finances and how we’re influenced by state laws. Do you think the district’s transportation program is fairly comfortable financially?
You’re always in a crunch with what the state does. We used to be on an eight-year bus replacement cycle; now we’re on a 10-year cycle because we’ve gone to all diesels. The biggest thing now is the temperature change. We’ve been so hot. About three or four years ago, we started buying air-conditioned buses. We buy about six a year, and, of course, it’s going to take a while to rotate through.

It’s so hot for the children on the bus. We used to start after Labor Day, but now we start earlier in the year. That’s been a real challenge for us. We’re making some headway, but it’s just six buses at a time. What do you hear from parents about the transportation program?
I get as much input as anybody does. But people don’t seem to complain about it too much. Lots of times people complain about the walking distance. They’ll say that they don’t have sidewalks, making it dangerous for their children to walk to school. You have some concerns in those areas. Overall, I feel that we have a real good transportation department. And I’m not prejudiced because my wife works for the transportation department. When it comes down to voting, we separate her job and my duties as a board member. I have to look at what’s best for all of the students, all of the departments and all of the various budgets. During your tenure on the board, have you had any initiatives in the area of pupil transportation?
When I started serving on the board, I decided that we would always keep our fleet in good shape. That’s because we had let the fleet get old and the facilities, too.

Right now, we’re having a new, drive-through bus washer put in. It should start up no later than Nov. 15. This is one of the touchless ones. We had so much trouble with the ones with the brushes. They were tearing up mirrors and causing other problems. So the cleanliness of the buses is important to the district?
We think clean buses are good for the kids and the driver and the image of the county, but it’s also a safety factor. The windows need to be clean so the driver can clearly see out of them. Should the transportation program be a higher priority?
To me, the school system is like a wheel. It takes all the spokes to keep that wheel supported. If it’s weak in even one spot, it’s not going to work. If the bus drivers don’t get the students to school, the rest of the employees don’t have a job. It takes everybody to make everything work. To me, the lowest-paid employee and everyone all the way up to the superintendent are equal in terms of what makes a school district work. Do you think you’d have the same view of transportation if your wife wasn’t a bus driver?
Yes, because I try to see the big picture at what goes on in our school system. Do you ever have a difference of opinion about transportation issues with the other board members, or are you and the others pretty much of one mind?
I state my thoughts; they state their thoughts; and we vote. No matter what side prevails, I support the outcome. It becomes a board decision once the vote is over. That’s always been my philosophy. Fleet Facts: Polk School District, Cedartown, Ga.
Total buses in fleet: 75
Students transported (one way): 5,500
Operational budget for transportation (2006-07): $1.6 million
Number of drivers: 75
Service area: 312 square miles

Robert Jordan

Brevard County (Fla.) School District Robert Jordan is chair of the school board at Brevard County (Fla.) School District and is serving his fifth year. He was re-elected in the September primary, defeating two opponents. The board has five members overall. Jordan is an engineering process manager for a contractor at NASA, helping to maintain the space shuttles. What do you see as the greatest challenge for your transportation department?
For us, it’s the retention and recruitment of bus drivers. Every year, we have to prepare for children going back to school, and we’re always faced with a bus driver shortage. We’re happy about the kids who choose to ride the bus because we have a lot of kids who choose to drive themselves. One of the safest places that a child can be is on the bus and certainly not in a car. Safety is the No. 1 priority when it comes to getting kids to and from school, but the driver shortage is a problem. How has the school board addressed the driver shortage problem?
When there is high demand and short supply, the workers want more money. So we’ve changed the entry-level pay for bus drivers from $9.31 to $11.07 an hour. That’s a huge increase. We also have a recruitment bonus program. Any employee in our district who refers a bus driver receives a $250 bonus.

Another thing that we do is provide paid training for drivers who are getting their CDL. We also pay a bonus if they have perfect attendance in all of the classes. How much does the board get involved with the procurement of the buses?
Every year we purchase about 44 school buses. They’re on a 12-year replacement cycle. Some of these buses have to travel long distances to pick up and drop off the kids and we don’t want our parents to have to be concerned about their safety, so we try to make sure that not only do we have the best bus drivers but also the safest buses.

The board, of course, has to approve the money that’s spent on bus purchases. I remember when Mike Connors [Brevard’s transportation director] suggested that we go to the new buses that we have, which I think are gorgeous. They don’t look like the typical buses that you normally see. These are air conditioned with tinted windows, and they’re a lot safer than the buses of old. He brought one to the school board meeting, so we were able to get on it and experience it. We could actually see what he was asking us to buy. It was an excellent idea and made me feel good about making the purchase. How removed is the board from the transportation program?
I wouldn’t say that it’s removed. About 90 percent of the time, Mike is sitting in the audience for our school board meetings. Anytime there’s something going on with transportation that the administration feels we should know about, Mike has the four area transportation supervisors keep us apprised. I can tell you this: If there’s an accident that involves one of our buses, you can rest assured that within 15 minutes or so, all of the school board members know what’s going on. {+PAGEBREAK+} In general, what do you hear from the local community about the school transportation program?
When the citizens complain, it’s not about the buses. Only one or two people in the past four or five years that I’ve been on the board have mentioned seat belts. Mike has been very good about giving us all the background about lap belts and how dangerous they can be, for the little ones especially. He explained how they can harm more than they can help under certain circumstances.

The No. 1 concern that most parents have is the two-mile walking distance that Florida has imposed on the kids. I have been adamant that two miles is way too far for a child to have to walk to school. I wish they would change it so that it’s only a mile, which I sometimes think is still too long a distance for a child to walk.

That being said, here I am, chairman of the board, and last week I get a phone call from my daughter’s high school letting me know that she’s no longer eligible to ride the bus. You have to understand that I have a 24-year-old son who rode the bus every year in high school and now it’s my 14-year-old daughter’s turn and she can’t ride the bus.

We do pride ourselves about not playing favorites with anyone. When citizens call me and ask for an exception to the rules, I tell them that we don’t make exceptions. So, as chairman of the board, I could have put pressure on people, but that’s not what you do. What I did do was talk to the area superintendent and asked him to look into this and see if there is anything he could do. So he did that and called me back and said, “Robert, I’m sorry, but your daughter is 1.6 miles from school.” I thanked him and told him that I appreciated that he looked into it. We used to use a car to do the mileage but now we have a more accurate system.

It worked out fine, though, because I had three people volunteer to drive my daughter to school. What was interesting to me was that my daughter always wanted to ride the bus to high school. She rode the bus when she was in middle school, but had other options this year. I didn’t want to tell her one way or another whether to ride the bus or not. I thought it was important for her to make the decision about what she wanted to do. She has a friend who could have driven her to school, but she wanted to ride the bus. She’s a very mature person.

We had about two weeks to make arrangements to get her to school. It used to be that parents might have only three days to find another way to get their children to school if it was discovered that they were ineligible for bus service. That’s way too short a time. So about four or five months ago, we changed it to give parents more time to set up their child’s transportation, never knowing that it was going to affect me. That’s what I like about what we do here. We try our best to be fair with everyone. We look at every circumstance and make sure that every decision we make is best for the child. Is transportation a high priority at your school district?
Brevard County has said for many years now that not only do we want to be first in Florida, we want to be first in the nation. When we say that, we’re not only talking about academics, we’re also talking about teacher salaries, choice schools and transportation — first in everything. We want to be a well-rounded school system. We do not take transportation for granted. We know at the start of every year that we have enough bus drivers — qualified bus drivers — to safely transport our children. We want to ensure that we’re not hiring bus drivers because we’re desperate, but that we’re hiring the best we can find.

I always ask my daughter about how her bus driver is doing because sometimes the new bus drivers make mistakes. The kids on the bus will tell the bus driver if he’s not doing the right thing. Transportation is very important to us. Fleet Facts: Brevard County (Fla.) School District
Total buses in fleet: 573
Students transported (one way): 30,300
Operational budget for transportation (2006-07): $20.7 million
Number of drivers: 500
Service area: 1,018 square miles

Betsy Sandoval

Clovis (Calif.) Unified School District Betsy Sandoval, an insurance agent, is serving her 23rd year as a member of the governing board for Clovis (Calif.) Unified School District. She is the president of the seven-member board.

Her interest in the school district began when her children attended elementary school and expanded from parent club involvement to her election to the Governing Board in 1981. After taking a two-year hiatus from 1993 to 1995, Sandoval returned to the board in February 1996. Her term expires in 2010.

What’s your impression of the job that the district’s bus drivers do?
All of our bus drivers are fantastic. I sometimes ride the buses on field trips with my grandchildren and am so impressed by the job that the bus drivers do. They tell the kids what to do and make sure that they follow the rules. Well, most of the time anyway, since kids will be kids.

And our buses are always nice to look at, which helps a lot. If you have old, ratty buses, your parents aren’t going to want their kids riding those buses. What do you see as the greatest challenge for your district’s transportation program?
Unfortunately, as always, we need more money to run the program. We do a good job, but sufficient money to pay for the program would be a great help.

Clovis doesn’t get the money that a lot of the other districts do. People think that this district is rich, but we’re really not.

The transportation dollars that we get don’t cover the entire cost of transportation. That gets made up with money from the general fund.

How is the board addressing this challenge?
Several years ago, we increased the walking distance to lessen the cost of transportation. This helped to reduce the number of buses that we operate.

What are your walking distances?
For students in elementary school, the walking distance is one and a half miles. For older students, in intermediate and high school, the walking distance is two and a half miles. Do you find that parents agree with those walking distances?
No, they basically think it’s far too long for little children. And those that do receive bus service also want to be able to watch their children get on the bus from their homes. Even when the walking distances were shorter, parents complained that they couldn’t see their children get on and off the bus from their homes. When I was a child, we used to walk all the time. It was a lot different back then.

In some cases, the community has funded the operation of buses in areas where they don’t want their children walking to school. We currently operate 18 buses on community-funded bus runs, in which the community actually pays for the service. They put the money into a foundation. The amount depends on the size of the bus they need and what area they’re traveling to.

Should the transportation program be a higher priority for the school district and the board? Or is it getting the attention it deserves?
I personally believe our board has given transportation a lot of attention over the past couple of years. We listen to the parents and the transportation department and if there does need to be some changes made, it is thoroughly checked out to be sure we have the correct information to make changes. How has California’s decision to mandate three-point belt systems on all new school buses affected your district?
We recently received 10 new 50-passenger buses with three-point belt systems. I’m not totally sold on the fact that our buses need them. The kids have to use them and that puts the burden on the bus driver. The seat belt controversy came up before, but we never pushed it. How will the new buses be deployed?
All of our routes are combination routes, which means they each have a high school and middle school run and then do elementary runs. We will schedule these buses to the best of our ability. Fleet Facts: Clovis (Calif.) Unified School District
Total buses in fleet: 87
Students transported (one way): 6,500
Operational budget for transportation (2006-07): $7.4 million
Number of drivers: 70
Service area: 198 square miles


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