With about 1,500 square miles of mostly rural area
to cover, West County Transportation Agency
(WCTA) school buses regularly venture off paved
streets and onto dirt roads and driveways.
The agency relies on its small buses, most of
which carry students with special needs, to endure and maneuver
well on the rugged terrain.
“A lot of what we do, because it’s rural, is going off-road and onto
driveways — we may travel up a dirt driveway for a ways to get to the
house,” says Michael Rea, executive director of WCTA. “That’s why a
van-type cutaway works better for us.”
Even the on-road driving can be rough: Sonoma County, where
WCTA is based, is one of the lowest-rated counties in California for
WCTA runs about 50 small buses, most of which are Girardins on
Ford or Chevy chassis. For the agency, one of the key features of the
Girardins is that they are mounted on the chassis using rubberized
pucks to isolate shock.
“That makes a difference,” Rea says. “We keep our buses a long
WCTA is a joint-powers agreement of 16 school districts in Sonoma
County. The agency transports about 3,500 students throughout the
area, which covers vineyards, orchards and redwood forests.
The WCTA headquarters is in Santa Rosa, which, at a population
of about 150,000, is relatively large compared to the towns in the surrounding
Since most of the local school districts are small and not well positioned
to run their own transportation services, WCTA fills a vital role.
Rea says that through economies of scale and efficiency, the agency
yields significant savings for the districts.
WCTA was formed in 1988 with eight school district members.
Since then, it has gradually accepted more members to broaden its
base and spread its fixed costs. The agency brings in some additional
revenue by providing services for non-member districts and government
agencies, helping to further defray its member districts’ transportation
Still, funding is a significant challenge for the school districts.
Rea says that, on average, California pays only about
45 percent of school transportation operational costs.
Meeting many needs
In WCTA’s early days, it covered its members’ general-education
transportation but not special needs. But that has
changed over the years, with the agency now having full
responsibility for members’ special-needs transportation as
well as general-ed.
About half of WCTA’s small buses are equipped with
wheelchair lifts. The other half are ambulatory-type buses.
Rea notes that one of the perks of their small bus operation
is working with Girardin.
“They are very responsive,” Rea says. “If there are things
that we like about a bus, even if it isn’t part of their regular
model, they are willing to go ahead and re-engineer something
In addition to the small buses, WCTA runs about 90 large
buses, mostly 40-foot, 84-passenger models.
About a third of WCTA’s buses are powered by compressed
natural gas. The agency’s diesel buses have been
equipped with emissions-reducing technology, such as particulate
WCTA has a total staff of 108 people. Rea and a few
other staff members have been with the agency since its
Rea started in pupil transportation more than 30 years ago
when he got a job as a school bus driver to help pay his way
through college. Before WCTA, he worked in transportation
for a local school district.
As executive director of WCTA, Rea says that he enjoys
the diversity of his tasks. Since the agency is not part of a
district administration, “I’m responsible for everything,”
In addition to the operational aspects
of school transportation, his duties include
managing and building the budget,
handling labor negotiations and
personnel issues, and overseeing facility
matters like construction.
“There’s a lot of exciting things that
I’ve been able to do that I wouldn’t normally
have done if I was working for a school district,” Rea
says. “Probably the most creative part has been building a
new organization from the ground up.”
WCTA’s board of directors is composed of superintendents
from member school districts. Rea has monthly meetings
with the board.
In addition to his responsibilities at WCTA, Rea is involved
with the California Association of School Transportation
Officials. He currently serves as government relations
chair and as president of the association’s Chapter 13, which
covers Sonoma and three adjacent counties.
WCTA’s school bus drivers are members of the California
School Employees Association, a union that also represents
staff in other school support positions like food services, security,
and office and clerical services.
At the end of each school year, WCTA holds a potluck picnic,
in which awards are given for safety performance and
other achievements. Drivers as well as office staff members
are recognized for such matters as retirement, roadeo participation
and safety commendations from the California
Throughout the year, employees of the month are named,
and an employee of the year is named at the picnic. There
is also a special recognition each year for the group of staff
members who conducted the bus evacuation drills.
Although Rea recognizes the value
of holding get-together type events like
the picnic, he focuses on the agency’s accountability
to its school district members
and the public in general.
“We try to keep that kind of stuff at a
minimum, because we’re cognizant of the
taxpayers’ contribution,” Rea says.
School buses: 140 (92 large, 48 small)
Students transported daily: 3,500
Districts served: 16
Annual mileage: 1,352,176
Area of service: 1,500 sq. miles