Great Fleets Across America, Part 1

Posted on October 1, 1999

The essential elements of a top-notch school transportation program include devotion to safety, maintenance and training. We’ve chosen 50 operations from around the country that share these qualities. This inaugural “Great Fleets Across America” section is a celebration of excellence. The fleets recognized in this section are among the best in their respective states. They were selected based on their overall effectiveness in providing safe and efficient school transportation. Some excelled in the area of driver training, while others were strongest in vehicle maintenance. The most common attribute was a positive outlook and a family-like atmosphere for drivers and other staff members. The majority of operations mentioned problems with the driver shortage. There were no lines drawn between public and private fleets. Nor was size of fleet a consideration. We focused on quality rather than quantity, though some large fleets — including Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md., Cobb County Public Schools in Marietta, Ga., and Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev. — made the list. “Great Fleet” selections were not made using any specific formula or numerical rating system. Creating such a system would be difficult and would not have removed subjectivity from the process. Instead, we relied on recommendations from state directors of pupil transportation, state pupil transportation and contractor associations and members of our Editorial Advisory Board. We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who contributed to the selection process. The profiles were written by staff editors Steve Hirano and Sandra Matke as well as freelance writers Greta Palmer, Mary O’Halloran and George Furukawa.

Enterprise City Schools
Enterprise, Ala.

The transportation department at Enterprise City Schools takes pride in the way its buses look and run. Transporting 4,125 students daily on 55 buses, the district does all of its own maintenance in a new, state-of-the-art bus shop with eight open bays. In their previous shop, Enterprise mechanics could work on only two buses at a time. Now they can service nine. The new shop, which opened in January, boasts a machine shop, tire-changing room, upholstery room, wash rack and paint booth. Ron White, transportation supervisor, points out that a monthly maintenance program has been carried out consistently and that his department has received perfect state inspections for the past few years, without the benefit of the new shop. “We care about the way things run and don’t rely on the building to do it,” says White. Still, he admits that they are very happy with their new shop, which was funded by local taxes. The department’s annual operating budget is $1.2 million. Like many school districts, Enterprise is turning to video surveillance on its buses. White uses these videos to train drivers to be aware of what students are doing behind their backs. “All of our drivers are good,” says White. “We just try to make them better by opening their eyes.” White, who also plans to provide CPR and first aid training to all his drivers, believes strongly in preventive maintenance as a means of ensuring safety. Bob Tomberlin, director of operations, feels that the district is lucky to have White, a retired military fleet director who takes pride in his work. “An operation isn’t any better than the people running it,” Tomberlin says. “Good people make a good operation.”

North Slope Borough School District
Barrow, Alaska

Imagine driving a school bus on a day as dark as night, snow blowing across the hood and the temperature at 45 degrees below zero. These are common conditions faced each winter by the drivers of the North Slope Borough School District, which includes Barrow and four villages and covers approximately 88,000 square miles of northern Alaskan territory. “The busing up here is done differently,” says Bob Wheelon, transportation manager for the district of 800 bus-riding students. Differently is an understatement. For starters, school is almost never canceled due to weather. Wheelon may revise routes for weather-related road closures, but service continues nonetheless. In addition, the harsh climate necessitates door-to-door service — for all students. “To deal with the extreme cold, we actually stop in front of every kid’s house,” Wheelon says. The adverse weather affects more than routing and scheduling. The buses themselves are vulnerable to the harsh conditions and require special protection. When not in use, the buses are stored indoors. They’re equipped with an average of five heaters to keep the engine, battery and other vital parts functioning and are plugged into electric outlets whenever parked outdoors to prevent freezing of fluids. The district mechanic maintains all 13 of the district’s buses. Ten of the buses are in Barrow. The other three are in villages without connecting roads, forcing the mechanic to fly in and out whenever service is required. Despite the difficulty, North Slope Borough School District keeps its vehicles in prime condition, says Joe Precourt, state director of transportation for the Department of Education. In light of the harsh conditions they face each day, he considers this a “commitment to provide the highest level of safety for the children.”

Kyrene School District #28
Tempe, Ariz.

The desert heat hasn’t blistered Kyrene School District’s desire to stay ahead of the curve in driver training, maintenance and equipment. The district, located about 15 miles southeast of Phoenix, operates approximately 115 buses to transport 9,000 children to 24 elementary and middle schools on a $3 million operating budget. In the past few years, the district’s student population has grown rapidly, putting a squeeze on ancillary services like transportation. But the transportation center hasn’t budged on its demands for well-trained drivers and well-maintained buses. Chuck Lee, who supervises driver training, says the district provides a minimum of 30 hours of behind-the-wheel training for new drivers, even though the state mandates only 20. Classroom instruction also goes beyond state requirements, with the district providing 171D2 hours compared to the state-required 14. We just feel its better to go beyond the minimum, Lee says. It protects the district and the kids at the same time.” Fleet maintenance is one of Kyrene’s strengths, and it shows in the district’s exemplary inspection results, which state officials say are among the best. Paul Cochran, fleet maintenance supervisor, credits a rigorous 110-step summer inspection of each vehicle. The district’s three mechanics are all ASE-certified as Master Technicians. Transportation Director Chuck Keane, who recently left the same position at Richland School District in Washington, is trying to improve the drivers’ work environment. To encourage excellent performance, Keane has suggested that drivers who are accident-free at the end of the school year receive a three-day vacation weekend. Keane also has taken the initiative to bolster the safety specs on new school buses. Each of them will be equipped with dual LED stop arms, LED taillights, brake lights and turn signals and supplementary retroreflective tape. In addition, state-of-the-art video cameras will be placed on all buses to help drivers with student management. Keane’s also working on improving the drivers’ bottom line. “His goal is to make them the highest-paid drivers in the valley,” Lee says. “And that’s what he has been telling them from Day One.”

Conway School District
Conway, Ark.

As the population of Conway expands faster than any other county in Arkansas, the transportation department at Conway School District rises to the occasion. “Maintaining a quality transportation program while we go through a period of rapid growth has been quite a challenge,” says Eddie Hawkins, assistant superintendent, whose small district 30 miles from Little Rock has added six regular routes and 10 double routes in the past 10 years. “A very critical issue has been how to staff those routes,” says Hawkins. Four years ago he decided to give drivers a significant increase in pay to motivate interest in driving. The result was that teachers, custodians and other district employees began taking on routes to supplement their income. Not only did this control the driver shortage problem, but it had other benefits as well. “Our discipline on the buses has improved greatly by being able to get more teachers and staff members driving our buses,” says Hawkins. “Because of their ties to the school, they’re more familiar with the children and have been a great force for us in student management.” At the same time, Hawkins pulled together a committee of parents, administrators and bus drivers for a series of meetings on how to establish and enforce rules on the bus. They came up with a standard policy using five main rules, by which all students, elementary through high school, must abide. A rule sheet is sent home the first day of school and parents must sign and return the sheet by week two or their children will no longer be allowed to ride the bus. “We insist that the parents cooperate with us,” says Hawkins, who calls the 3-year-old program a success.

Kern County Superintendent of Schools
Bakersfield, Calif.

The Kern County Superintendent of Schools provides a spectrum of support services for 47 school districts spread over 8,000 square miles. On the transportation side, the county office provides busing of 1,100 special-needs students, fee-for-service maintenance of 600 to 800 public vehicles and school bus driver training. Many of Kern County’s school districts are so small that they don’t have the resources to operate a school bus program without support from the county office, says Don Fowler, division administrator of transportation. “If they’re to survive, the only way they’re going to do it is to reap the benefits of the cooperative services that we provide,” he says. To that end, the county office provides contract-based special-needs transportation with a fleet of 59 school buses and six passenger vehicles. The clients include seven school districts and a Head Start agency. Fowler says the operation is run on a $4.1 million budget, 45 percent of which is funded by the state. The remainder is passed on to the school districts in the form of excess cost. Fowler takes pride in the quality of his special-needs drivers. “A few of our drivers have made it to 18 years without a preventable accident,” he says. In addition, two of them were state roadeo champions. The drivers are given uniforms to wear so the public and students can easily identify them. Fowler says many of Kern County’s school districts have the same policy. “It’s a worthwhile investment,” he says. Maintenance of school buses operated by the county as well as those who desire a fee-for-service arrangement is performed in a 36,000-square-foot service center that has 16 service bays and 10 hoists, a tire room, a machine shop, a welding shop and a glass and upholstery shop. In addition to school districts, the client list includes the sheriff’s department, the Army National Guard and the YMCA. Fowler’s staff includes three full-time driver trainers. “A small district has a hard time affording a certified trainer,” he explains. Services provided by the trainers includes original and renewal classes for driver instruction, behind-the-wheel training and evacuation and safe riding practices training.

Aurora Public Schools
Aurora, Colo.

The transportation department at Aurora Public Schools puts a premium on staff input to help it retain an innovative edge. To foster open communication, Transportation Director Augie Campbell formed a Building Council, an advisory group of drivers and other staff members. The council addresses problems, creates solutions and devises new strategies for the department, which transports 8,700 students to and from 42 schools. “After 28 years in the position, I felt like I was getting out of touch with the real people — the drivers and mechanics,” explains Campbell, whose drivers currently total 91 and mechanics seven. “The Building Council lets me know what’s really happening and gives me a whole new area of thought.” As a result of this collaboration, several unconventional programs have been developed. Among these is the addition of a silent alarm system to the entire fleet. Responding to increased school violence, the district retrofitted all 107 yellow buses with special dual-lamp blue lights, which are attached below the driver’s window and can be used to alert other drivers and police of any hostage or weapons situations. The transportation system, with a $4.1 million operations budget, also initiated a program in cooperation with seven other school districts in the state to help reduce the number of “blow-bys,” or drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses. For nine months the participating districts will track and evaluate the effectiveness of different light combinations designed to signal motorists to stop for the school bus.

F.E. Smyth & Son and Smyth Bus Co.
Enfield, Conn.

Two companies owned by the same family — F.E. Smyth & Son and Smyth Bus Co. — provide quality service with a strong emphasis on safety. With 130 yellow buses servicing 19 schools in three districts — Enfield, Windsor Locks and East Windsor — the Smyth companies have achieved the highest ratings for state vehicle inspections for the past four years. Dick Smyth credits his 127-person staff for the company’s clean safety records and impeccable service. “The key is to hire the best people around,” Smyth says of his mechanics and drivers, 25 of whom are related to one another. He also reveals a few of his strategies for maintaining excellent safety records: meticulous pre-trip inspections, replacing 10 percent of his buses each year and investing in high-quality engines. Robin Leeds, executive director of the Connecticut School Transportation Association (COSTA) for 17 years, says that the Smyth family business has earned a solid reputation among all carriers in the state — both public and private — because of a strong code of ethics. “Two years ago Dick gave up two contracts because he felt the load was too large to maintain control,” says Leeds. “When I asked him why he didn’t renegotiate the contracts and then sell them to another operation, he said that he could not have guaranteed the kind of service another carrier would have provided.” Smyth, whose father was one of the founders of COSTA, explains his commitment to his clients stems from the product being delivered. “Every day we need to remember that we are transporting the world’s most precious cargo. We take that very seriously.” Windsor Locks Transportation Director Scott Burckbuchler calls Smyth a rarity in the business. “I usually don’t gush over a vendor, but Smyth is awesome,” he says. “Whenever you have a situation that needs a solution, you phone Dick directly and he handles it. You don’t have to speak to a computer or to a secretary. You wouldn’t get that kind of personal attention and care from the bigger companies.”

Hilton Bus Services
Wyoming, Delaware

You can take the man out of a transportation system, but you can’t take a transportation system out of the man — so reads the story of David Hilton, a former school transportation supervisor and now owner/operator of Hilton Bus Services in Wyoming, Delaware. Hilton brings to his company, formed in 1996 with the purchase of E&M Bus System, an insight and management style developed while working in the local education system for more than 35 years. The company recently purchased Cool’s Bus Service, adding 28 new routes and 32 additional buses. Hilton now owns 57 buses and services two districts and 1,500 students daily. It logs an average 6,000 miles per day. Hilton’s son David (who prefers “The Second,” rather than “Jr.”) says the family business “puts in enough miles to go to Salt Lake City and back each day.” Hilton II describes Hilton I as “a stickler for rules and safety,” and says that his father’s background as both a teacher and a district supervisor is reflected in the company’s white-glove performance standards. “My father expects his drivers to do what he would do, nothing more nothing less,” say Hilton. “He comes from the Old School mentality, where if you’re not a safe driver you don’t drive here.” Both Hiltons monitor their drivers by conducting road inspections. During these covert inspections, they will check various driving requirements, including that drivers make their stops correctly, leave their warning lights flashing for the proper amount of time and wait until students are seated before leaving the curb. Hilton advocates open communication with the company’s 54 drivers and four mechanics. They have their own mailboxes for office news and route information. The appearance is indicative of the company’s high standards. Hilton pays a five-person crew to clean the inside of the buses from top to bottom each day. “We are all about safety when we are driving, and we want to look good when we are doing it,” says Hilton.

Pasco County Schools
Port Richey, Fla.

Maintaining a safety cushion around 27,000 children is difficult under normal conditions. With the ongoing — and worsening — driver shortage, Pasco County Schools is struggling to meet the challenge of safe and timely transportation. Transportation Director Michael Park says the district, located about 40 miles north of Tampa, puts 275 route buses on the road each day to deliver children to and from 45 school sites. He started the school year with a deficit of 36 drivers. “We just can’t find the people,” he laments. “Everywhere you go around here you see ‘Help Wanted’ signs.” The problem, Park says, is that many of the prospects who go through his school system’s driver training immediately leave after obtaining their CDLs. Of course, many of them never intended to drive a school bus and only used that ploy to get their CDL so they can drive for another organization or company. To retain the drivers who are willing to pilot a school bus, the district offers a $100-per-quarter bonus for perfect attendance. If the driver has perfect attendance for the full year, he receives an additional $200. The bonuses are nice, but Park believes that drivers are sorely underpaid. “They’re worth 10 times what they’re paid,” he says. “They’re the key to everything.” Upping the ante, the district has begun to guarantee drivers six hours per day, up from 41D2 hours. With the shortage, however, drivers generally can do better than six hours. Everybody can get 40 hours per week if they want to, Park says. On a more positive note, the district has four repair facilities. The state requires 20-day inspections, which is no problem at Pasco. “We firmly believe in preventive maintenance,” Park says. He is bringing online a new fleet maintenance software system, having outgrown the previous 18-year-old software system. To bolster its school bus safety program, Park applied for and received grant money for a Buster the Bus program combined with a puppet show for K-2 students across the district. A middle-school choir provides the musical support. “It’s quite entertaining for the younger children,” Park says.

Cobb County Public Schools
Marietta, Ga.

Giving drivers a voice in the operation is difficult when you’re running 795 school buses on regular routes each day to transport 69,000 students — but Cobb County Public Schools does its best. “We give all of our employees the chance to provide input,” says Carroll Pitts, executive director of transportation. Drivers, in particular, are invited to sit on committees that do everything from plan the annual roadeo to set up field-trip rules and procedures. In addition, Pitts says drivers of new vehicles can sit on the school bus specifications committee. “We ask them to talk about what’s wrong with their buses,” he says. “We keep trying to improve on the bus for their benefit, because they’re the ones who have to drive it for six to eight hours per day.” Monthly, Pitts sits down with 32 field coordinators, who represent all of the drivers. “We teach and tell them everything we’re doing in transportation, including any plans that we have. This way, they can let us know if they think it’s a good plan, a bad plan or whatever.” The need for effective communication is especially critical because of the continued growth of the district, a northern suburb of Atlanta. Pitts says he’s added an average of 25 to 30 buses to the fleet for each of the past five years. All told, the district has 950 buses. They’re maintained by a crew of 52 mechanics and supervisors at four terminals. Since 1991, the district has been working on a 10-year fleet replacement cycle. For the past two years, rear-engine transit-style buses have been the vehicles of choice. Pitts believes these buses are quieter and provide better visibility. “The drivers like that,” Pitts says. Because the district transports so many students, Pitts says the push for safety is constant. In addition to bringing the Buster the Bus program to all K-3 students, the department is working with the PTA to encourage parents of young students to be present at the bus stops for pickups and drop-offs. “We’re always looking for something that will improve safety,” he says.

Gomes School Bus Service Ltd.
Kaneohe, Hawaii

Unlike its mainland counterparts, Hawaii has only one public school district. That limits the options of school bus contractors, but hasn’t deterred Gomes School Bus Service. The company serves more than 20 public schools and several private schools, transporting 2,500 students daily with 89 yellow buses and 120 employees. It also provides island-wide charter service. Lee Gomes is the manager of the company, which was started in 1959 by her late father-in-law, Edward Gomes. David, her husband, is president, owner and head mechanic. Their son, Bryan, is a mechanic. David’s brother, Cheyenne, is also a mechanic. With so many family members in the fold, it’s not surprising that a strong family atmosphere permeates the operation and extends all the way to the passengers. “We have good people working here, who really care about the kids,” says Lee Gomes. “They get so attached to the children. Our drivers must be dependable. It’s not an easy job, but it’s rewarding.” The company does not advertise for drivers. “Our drivers stay with us a long time,” Gomes says. “No one can stay at a job they’re not happy with, and produce good results. You have to walk through our door wanting to be a school bus driver, not wanting to just drive a bus. There’s a difference.” Experienced drivers who apply for positions with Gomes are not always as successful as ones trained by the company. “I can take a driver who has been driving for many years for other companies, and that driver still has to go through our training program,” says Gomes. “They have to be able to drive a school bus up to our standards, and if they can’t handle the bus, they’re not accepted.” “We do everything ourselves,” says David Gomes. “We not only service our buses, but we also service trucks. In Hawaii, you have to diversify to survive.” Staying competitive in such a small market requires strong commitment. “We polish our buses and try to do something extra to stay competitive,” he says. “We look at inspections as a way of helping us to better serve the children and their parents.”

St. Maries School District
St. Maries, Idaho

To access the bus shop at St. Maries School District you need to pass through a doorway that looks like the back of a school bus, complete with flashing red lights. Just one in a series of morale-boosters, the painted entrance creates a positive atmosphere in the shop and inspires Transportation Supervisor Cliff Mooney to call his current position one of the “most fun” jobs he has ever had. “It’s a pleasure every day to come in and work,” he says. Winner of the 1998-99 Idaho Pupil Transportation Supervisor of the Year award, Mooney believes in providing twice the amount of driver training required by the state. This includes hands-on practice in adjusting mirrors, installing chains and testing air brakes. “Everything that needs to be covered we try to cover way more than we have to,” he says. Good training has earned all 24 district drivers perfect driving records. Top-notch mechanics have followed suit and earned perfect inspection marks for the fleet’s 24 buses each year. “For a small operation, we’re just a first-class business,” says Mooney, who notes that recognition does not come easily to a small operation serving four schools in the Idaho mountains. But the location itself merits recognition. The terrain is hilly, with almost no flat land. Every route covers at least 10 miles of dirt road, and six months of the year all roads are covered in ice or snow. As Mooney points out, it takes good drivers to master that territory. “We’ve got probably the best crew in the state,” he says. “I’d put them up against anybody.”

Township High School District No. 211
Palatine, Ill.

What’s most striking about this school district operation in Palatine, a suburban community about 35 miles northwest of Chicago, is the absence of a driver shortage. “I’ve never advertised for a driver,” says Gary Marx, who’s been the transportation director since 1982. Instead, he relies on referrals from existing drivers to fill vacancies. Not that there are many vacancies to fill. Marx says the driver turnover rate is approximately 5 percent. “That’s because this is a good place to work,” Marx says. “People generally just don’t leave here.” Marx says drivers tend to be overlooked by school districts, and he takes great pains to ensure that doesn’t happen in Palatine. To that end, he brings in district representatives to provide drivers with information on the state pension plan, medical insurance and liability. “Our training is not just about how to use the stop arms,” he says. That’s not to say, however, that drivers don’t receive a good dose of training, especially those who’ve had an at-fault accident. These drivers are retrained, reevaluated and may be required to go through the National Safety Council’s Defensive Driving Course. “What we’re trying to do is stop the careless accidents,” he says. Since this policy was set up four or five years ago, the accident rate has been cut in half, Marx says. The district operates 125 daily route buses and 140 buses overall. Maintenance is performed by eight mechanics — who are all ASE-certified Master Technicians — and two apprentices at two garages. Interest in ASE certification has mushroomed in the past several years and has become a “rallying point” for the mechanics, Marx says. But mechanics aren’t the only ones interested in certification. The district’s driver instructor and driver supervisor have earned NAPT (National Association for Pupil Transportation) certification. “It was a matter of personal pride,” says Marx, who is an NAPT-certified transportation director. “It’s pressure they put on themselves, in a positive way.”

Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp.
Evansville, Ind.

In 1987, Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. responded to impending oil embargoes and increasingly long gasoline lines by taking an aggressive approach. The district invested $245,000 in a compressed natural gas (CNG) system and ended up saving a bundle of money in the long run. Originally, 90 buses were converted to CNG, with special kits and tanks installed on the vehicles. The district purchased 62 slow-fill stations, which are used to fill tanks slowly overnight, and one fast-fill pump, for immediate fuelings. The clean-burning fuel costs a third of the price of regular gasoline. The district recouped its investment in five years. Now 143 of its 264 yellow buses have been converted to CNG, and the district has a new $700,000 fueling station, which was partially funded by Southern Indiana Gas & Electric Co. Charles Johnson, transportation director, says that Evansville-Vanderburgh’s 12 mechanics have been trained to service both types of vehicles, and considers the CNG buses to be low-maintenance vehicles. Johnson adds that many of his 264 drivers prefer the alternative-fuel school buses because they seem to run better than the regular vehicles. A police officer for 27 years, Johnson runs a tight ship at Evansville-Vanderburgh. He applies the same aggressive approach to transporting the 17,500 students from the district’s 35 schools as he did when overhauling the fleet’s fueling system. “As a police officer, I worked for 25 years in the juvenile division,” says Johnson. “I dealt with all types of children and all of their problems. Knowing how to deal with children and their parents is a plus in this job.”

Fort Dodge Community School District
Fort Dodge, Iowa

Chris Darling is a big believer in computerization. When he took over as transportation director at Fort Dodge Community School District about eight years ago, he brought his high-tech intentions with him. In his second year, he implemented a computerized routing system but cautiously backed it up with the old manual system. “I didn’t want to have it fail,” he says. After that inaugural year, he discarded the manual system and has relied solely on the computer for the past six years. “We don’t do anything by hand,” he says. Currently, the fleet has 46 buses handling 27 regular routes, six special-needs routes and four or five other alternative-learning routes. Approximately 2,000 children are transported on an operating budget of $775,000. The district, a mix of “town and country” that spans 165 square miles, is located about 100 miles north of Des Moines. Darling says the computerized system has improved transportation on several fronts. First, it cut the number of routes by five by optimizing efficiency. The computer also helped to the reduce the number of pick-ups and drop-offs that required a child to cross the street by 45 percent. “That was a real improvement to student safety,” Darling says. After the district created a hub-style routing system with a transfer point for 600 students, the computer became even more important. “When a parent calls in to register a child, we go right to the computer and input their address,” Darling explains. “The computer will show exactly where they live, assign them a bus and it will also tell them the transfer bus. We amaze people with how quickly we can provide information.” If driver recruitment ran as smoothly as its computers, the transportation department would be in great shape. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. “The driver shortage is one of our biggest problems,” Darling says. He adds, however, that people who take up the challenge are well prepared. In addition to satisfying all of Iowa’s pre-service training requirements, new drivers must also go through a 60-trip training program with other drivers. “They may drive by themselves at times, but they don’t leave town,” he says. “By the time they complete 60 trips, they’re bus drivers.”

Shawnee Heights Unified School District #450
Tecumseh, Kan.

The transportation department at Shawnee Heights Unified School District gives credence to the saying, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” The district has a fleet of 56 buses for 27 regular routes and five special-needs routes. The annual operating budget is $1 million. Compared to heavyweight fleets in large urban areas, it’s more of a VW bug than a Cadillac. “We may be small, but we’re very, very good,” says Bob Salmon, who oversees transportation as well as buildings and grounds. His lack of modesty is understandable. The district’s drivers regularly distinguish themselves in state and national roadeos. “Our drivers are very positive about what they do,” he says. “They continue to prove that by placing extremely high in roadeos. I take a great deal of pride in their accomplishments.” Salmon says the department also has an excellent safety and training record. As an example, he says that in the six years that he’s been with the district, none of his driver applicants has ever failed to pass the CDL exams — written and behind-the-wheel — on the first try. “The license examiners tell us, ‘We never have to worry about those Shawnee Heights people because they know what they’re doing,’” he says. The department also takes pride in its advocacy. “We’re very vocal in trying to get legislation changed,” Salmon says. “We tend to make a little more noise than most districts.” The current hot-button issue is illegal pass-bys of school buses. The district has voiced its concerns to the state highway patrol and the Kansas State Pupil Transportation Association. “This is becoming one of the biggest issues in school transportation today,” he says. Salmon also takes pride in the district’s maintenance staff. In the past six years, not a single school bus has been flagged for a major — or minor — violation during state inspections. “It’s such an astounding feat that two years ago the superintendent of the highway patrol came out here to witness the inspections,” he says.

Hardin County School District
Elizabethtown, Ky.

In Hardin County, quality school transportation begins with clean, well-maintained buses. “We want our buses to be noticed as the cleanest buses in Kentucky,” says Transportation Director Bobby Sheroan, who requires all 186 buses to be inspected every 20 days. Drivers whose buses rate in the top 25 percent over the course of the school year receive certificates for their efforts. Clean buses deter vandalism, according to Sheroan. Not only are students less likely to damage a bus that is in good condition, but drivers can more easily pinpoint the perpetrator of damage when a bus is well maintained. “Complete restitution is expected of parents,” says Sheroan of damage caused by students. The district firmly believes in “being there [for drivers], listening to them and standing up for them.” In the past, Sheroan says, drivers were quitting for lack of administrative support. He has improved conditions for drivers by establishing a firm student discipline plan, ensuring quality maintenance services by ASE-certified mechanics and providing adequate staffing. The staff includes not only 175 regular-route drivers, but also 20 alternate drivers who receive full pay and benefits. Rather than hiring substitute drivers who Sheroan feels will use the position as a “stepping stone” until they get another job, he hires full-time alternates to replace absent drivers. When not driving, alternates put in their hours doing route reviews, riding with other drivers to learn routes, assisting with discipline problems or acting as bus aides. On special-needs buses, Sheroan employs two certified drivers, one to drive the bus and the other to act as an aide. He believes drivers are more in tune with the requirements of the children on a special-needs bus than are regular bus monitors. “In light of the fragile cargo we’re carrying,” says Sheroan, “it’s worth the small added cost of training two drivers for each special-needs bus.”

Jefferson Parish School Board
Metairie, La.

The school bus operation at Jefferson Parish School District, located adjacent to New Orleans, is different in some respects from the standard public or private fleets around the country. The 329 buses are owned by individual drivers who are considered employees of the school district. It’s an unusual system, but not without its benefits. Dale Boudreaux, director of regular-education transportation, says he has “friendly discussions” with colleagues at school districts with board-owned buses about who is likely to take better care of the bus. “We think it’s the owner rather than an employee,” he says. Meanwhile, the Jefferson Parish district’s safety record, according to its insurance carrier, is very good, Boudreaux says. While owner/operators may have a greater vested interest in taking care of their vehicles, it’s also much more expensive for them to enter the business. The difficulty these days, Boudreaux says, is finding people who want to buy a school bus. “The escalating cost of school buses is a problem,” he says. New drivers can’t buy a bus that’s more than 5 years old; existing drivers can buy buses that are up to 10 years old. An incentive plan was implemented in 1988-89 to replace the oldest buses in the fleet. Ten stipends are awarded each year to the 10 drivers with the oldest buses. They receive $1,000 per year for seven years. “Our fleet has improved dramatically since the school board approved the stipend program,” Boudreaux says. He was involved in the program’s inception, working alongside former transportation director George Horne. In 1988-89, about 76 percent of the buses were older than 10 years. Now, only 30 percent fall in that category. “We have definitely improved the makeup of our fleet,” he says. Further improvements are expected in the new year, when a sunset limit on school buses takes effect. The age restriction, which was passed by the state board of education, prohibits school buses older than 25 years from being operated. “This eventually will lead to the elimination of all pre-1977 buses in Louisiana,” says Boudreaux. “Amen.”

Maine School Administrative District #57
Waterboro, Maine

Maine’s District #57 has repeatedly taken proactive steps to improve its transportation system. It has implemented programs that maximize routing efficiency and increase public awareness for school bus safety. Operating on a $1.5 million annual budget, District #57 has been recognized for spearheading two successful programs — computerized routing and Operation Safe Stop. Computerized routing saves time for drivers with any fluctuations in their routes by pinpointing home addresses for each of the 3,600 students transported daily on a computerized map, and then configuring the most direct routes. The system is also used as a safety measure to provide door-to-door service for kindergarten students who are dropped off at noon. Operation Safe Stop is a partnership between District #57 and the local sheriff’s department. It was designed almost six years ago to reduce the number of vehicles passing stopped school buses. Bus drivers or anyone else witnessing an illegal passing can report the incident, along with pertinent information such as license plate number and vehicle description, to the police. The police will then contact the person in violation and warn him about future penalties for his actions. Connie Thimble, transportation director for District #57, says that because of Operation Safe Stop, motorists are more conscious of school buses, especially in school parking lots. Thimble is especially proud of the 55-member staff. She says they can run their operation “beautifully” in the most stressful of times, as was the case when Thimble missed the critical first few days of the new school year due to illness. “They all pitched in and helped out, and everything ran without a hitch.” Teamwork has enabled District #57 to own the team trophy in the state roadeo for the past 10 years, and also to place first, second and third in the regional competition last year. Rayette Hudon, executive director of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation, says she is continually impressed by the commitment of the district’s drivers. In addition to logging some of the highest mileage in the state, approximately 3,500 miles a day with fewer buses than other districts, many of the school district’s 48 drivers have taken defensive-driving classes and attend driver training workshops during the year.

Montgomery County Public Schools
Rockville, Md.

While neighboring districts publicly announced driver shortages and considered changing school hours to accommodate all of their bus-riding students, Montgomery County Public Schools attacked the problem at the source. They launched an aggressive recruitment campaign, which included posting flyers in store windows and on car windshields, placing ads in local newspapers and offering a highly competitive salary and benefits. “We felt like we could do a good job if we just had one simple element of our plan in place, and that would be to have a driver for every bus,” says Transportation Director John Matthews, who succeeded in his plan. In a district of 92,000 students, finding enough drivers to operate all 1,100 buses is no easy feat. And retaining them can be even more difficult. Aware that most new drivers cannot afford to go through the entire training process without payment, the department has started paying new drivers on a bus attendant’s salary scale during training. New hires work as an attendant and get accustomed to the school bus and its passengers when not involved in driver training exercises. In addition, Matthews says he and his staff have made the department a friendlier place to work. They have matched each new driver with a veteran driver who acts as a mentor. They have also set up welcome desks at each bus terminal, where new employees in the past have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the masses. Now, says Matthews, “there’s someone there to respond to the needs of new drivers.” Fully staffed, Matthews’ department is prepared to serve this suburb of Washington, D.C., by travelling a daily distance he calculates to be “three times around the equator plus 10,000 miles.”

Tewksbury Transit Inc.
Tewksbury, Mass.

Feeling the pinch of the driver shortage, Tewksbury Transit works diligently to service all nine schools in town. Manager Andy Lafortune says he would be thrilled to have 60 drivers, but functions now with only 52 by having office staff and mechanics double as drivers. Despite the added workload, routine maintenance is performed on all 43 buses using a revolving schedule in which six to seven buses are brought in every two to three days. Lafortune says this rigid system is necessary, considering the employee shortage. “We can’t afford to have a bus break down with someone having to be rescued when we don’t have the personnel to do that,” he explains. They also cannot afford to take their driver trainer away from his routes to train new hires. So they have constructed a duplicate of the CDL obstacle course in their yard, where the trainer can give lessons in between his runs. This set-up has the added benefit of enabling the manager to monitor the training process. “I can keep an eye on what’s going on and see who’s progressing and who needs a little more attention,” says Lafortune. Personal involvement in the operation is Lafortune’s style. Because Tewksbury Transit is a family-owned company, it is able to offer some privileges that other companies can’t, such as paid snow days and holidays and monthly cash bonuses for perfect attendance. Not only do these incentives help retain drivers, but they also help improve their motivation and performance.

Quincy Community Schools
Quincy, Mich.

Operating buses for two schools in the small village of Quincy, Mich., may not seem a difficult task. But when one of those institutions is among the largest elementary schools in the state, the situation gets a little more complicated. Doug Pawloski directs a staff of 18 in transporting approximately 900 students daily, while at the same time doing all of the routing and maintenance for the 24 buses himself. Nonetheless, his fleet has earned the highest rating on annual police inspections the past four years in a row. He attributes this not only to routine preventive maintenance, but also to annual vehicle rotation, in which two new buses replace two older buses in the fleet. “We’re getting rid of them before they get a lot of mileage, rust and wear and tear,” says Pawloski, who also points out that buses are purchased based on quality rather than on price. Operating these buses are mostly long-time drivers who Pawloski values highly. “It’s hard to get good people,” he says. “When you get them, you’ve got to take care of them and keep them.” He helps drivers out in any way he can, including performing immediate repairs on their vehicles and driving their routes for them, if necessary, to allow them time off. Not only does this help him retain good drivers, but it also improves company morale. “When I need help, in turn, they’re right there for me,” he says.

Hoglund Transportation
Monticello, Minn.

It’s not like the old days, laments Gordy Hoglund, president of Hoglund Transportation in Monticello, about 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul. The business has become more demanding and competitive. And the driver shortage hasn’t helped. “When you’re short of employees, there’s so much pressure on you,” Hoglund says. But Hoglund, who operates approximately 50 buses for school districts in Monticello and Elk River, has no plans to leave the business. “Even though there are places that are selling out, we’re committed to this,” he says. His father started the business shortly after the end of World War II. In 1986, Hoglund took over. He has witnessed changes in school transportation, but downplays the perceived degeneration of behavior among students. “About 98 or 99 percent of the kids are still good, like they always were,” he says. “But it’s the last 2 percent that everybody hears about.” Hoglund is proud of the quality of service his company provides. He takes special pride in his maintenance program, which has produced perfect and nearly perfect (a two-point deduction for a burned-out clearance light) state inspections over the past two years. He credits the talents of his five-person maintenance staff and the conscientiousness of his drivers in performing their pre- and post-trip inspections. “It comes down to having good people,” he says. Hoglund has made things easier for his mechanics by standardizing his equipment. He buys only International chassis with bodies by Thomas Built Buses. “Having standardized equipment helps us a lot,” he says. He acknowledges, however, that his chassis/body combination may be unavailable in the near future because of Freightliner Corp.’s acquisition of Thomas. Hoglund is assisted by two daughters and their husbands, who help to run the school bus operation as well as the family’s ambulance dealership and auto rental agency. “It’s nice,” Hoglund says, “because you have someone you can holler at.” Joking aside, Hoglund enjoys having family members playing key roles in the business. “I know I can depend on them,” he says.

Biloxi School District
Biloxi, Miss.

With a retired Air Force officer at the helm, it’s not surprising that order and organization are highly valued in the transportation department at Biloxi School District. The garage is scrubbed down every Friday and tools are always in their proper place. “I’ll match our facility against anybody’s,” says Jerry Tatum, the district’s transportation director for the past 18 years. “We probably have the safest, most well-maintained fleet in the state.” Quarterly inspections are done with a “fine-toothed comb,” Tatum says. His maintenance staff of three mechanics and fleet manager tends to 50 school buses, including spares, and about 25 other district vehicles, such as cars, trucks, tractors, lawn mowers and fork lifts. Tatum prefers to hire mechanics with skill, aptitude and general background knowledge, but shies away from workers with “too much experience.” Those workers are less likely to learn to do things the Biloxi way, Tatum says. Deviating from the norm, Biloxi’s fleet is made up of gasoline buses. He previously operated propane buses, but shifted to gasoline in the early ’90s because of escalating propane prices. Eventually, he’ll switch to diesel vehicles, but has been reluctant because of the additional training his mechanics will require. Although the district has several traffic impediments, including two draw bridges and a busy CSX rail line, Biloxi’s buses are “very, very rarely late,” Tatum says. In fact, he says the buses are “too good” in meeting their schedules. This punctuality can create unreal expectations among parents and students. “People do get spoiled,” he says. On a daily basis, 35 buses transport about 6,000 students in the coastal resort area. Competition from Biloxi’s fast-growing casino industry has hampered the district’s driver recruitment and retention efforts, but Tatum says the majority of his drivers are long-timers. These retirees and housewives comprise approximately 75 percent of the driver corps.

Independence School District
Independence, Mo.

From the back yard of Harry S. Truman in the Show-Me state, Independence School District has proven that an educational institution can successfully convert its fleet from privately operated to publicly run without a hitch in its git-along. The fleet was converted two years ago after decades of contractor operation. Transportation Director John Davies says it appeared to be a “seamless transition” — from the outside. Internally, Davies says, the operation had to be built from scratch. “It looked real easy to everyone except me,” he says. Typically, the biggest hurdle that districts face in re-establishing an in-house operation is acquiring buses. Independence sidestepped this hurdle by leasing rather than purchasing a fleet of approximately 110 new buses. Not only did this minimize capital expenditures, it also allowed the maintenance staff — six mechanics and a shop foreman — to take over the operation with fresh horses. Davies says the garage staff does an excellent job in maintaining the 2-year-old fleet, which has achieved passing rates of 96 and 98 percent in mandatory state inspections. “Last year we would have been perfect except that we had two taillights burn out on us,” he says. Each day, the buses transport approximately 9,500 students in the district, located just west of Kansas City. The transportation budget is $3.2 million, but Davies stays well within his means, coming in $300,000 under budget. Harry S. Truman, who Davies often saw walking the streets of Independence, would be proud. Davies credits his drivers, office staff, school administrators and the school board for the department’s success. “They’ve all made a strong contribution to what we’ve accomplished,” he says.

Beach Transportation
Missoula, Mont.

The Beach family started in the transportation business more than a hundred years ago, hauling supplies across Montana in a covered wagon. In 1941, Ray Beach became the first school bus contractor for Missoula County schools. Since then, Ray’s son Bob has grown the family business, with the help of his own sons, Greg and Scott. “I think it’s important to carry on the family business,” says Greg, who currently serves as vice president, alongside his brother Scott. Today, with 100 vehicles and 135 employees, Beach Transportation is ranked among the top bus operators in the nation. The company is a three-time winner of the National School Transportation Association’s Golden Merit Award for service, safety and community responsibility. It is also a two-time recipient of a No. 1 rating from the Department of Defense’s Military Traffic Management Command for maintenance, safety and training. Greg says the key to their success has been treating employees like family. “We believe that if we take care of our drivers, then they will take care of the students that we transport.” Taking care of drivers includes having monthly safety drawings for a $100 prize on accident-free months and awarding school coats or caps to drivers who watch a certain number of safety videos. Running a tight ship has earned the Beach family contracts with the University of Montana, the U.S. military and several travel agencies. The company owns 12 motorcoaches for these purposes. The growth of the company, however, has not diminished the integrity of its members. Beach Transportation reaches out to the community through newspaper and radio ads on school bus safety and reduced-price trips for community organizations.

Lincoln Public Schools
Lincoln, Neb.

Lincoln Public’s fleet of 138 yellow buses makes it one of the largest operations owned by a local district in Nebraska. During the school year, the fleet transports 6,000 students to 48 different schools, and racks up about 7,100 miles per day. And while the lengths of the routes are impressive, the manner in which the district services them is even more impressive. With a transportation budget of $4.5 million and a 212-member staff that includes 15 mechanics and a full-time driver trainer, the department leads the state in driver training programs and vehicle maintenance. Transportation Supervisor Jean Mann believes the secret to successful driver training lies in the individual attention paid to drivers. Although all drivers must train behind the wheel for a minimum 40 hours, the district is careful to ensure each driver is fully prepared before beginning a route. “The key is making people feel comfortable.You don’t want them to feel frustrated the first day on the job because they’ll end up leaving,” says Mann. The fleet maintenance program is as comprehensive and keeps buses on the road under the most extreme conditions, in a state where temperatures can range from 100 degrees to 20 below zero. Nebraska requires buses to be inspected every 80 days; however, the district brings in buses every 20 days for a complete inspection. “Preventive care saves us hours of maintenance in the long run because you can catch a problem while it’s in the garage,” Mann says. She also recommends challenging mechanics by allowing them to work on buses of differing sizes. “We give each mechanic both big and small vehicles to look at so that they are more well rounded. They’ll be interested in what they’re doing if there is variety in their work.”

Clark County School District
Las Vegas, Nev.

Keeping up with one of the fastest-growing enrollments in the county is a challenge more than met by the transportation department at Clark County School District. Transportation Director Ronald Despenza says his department added 60 routes this year to keep up with the remarkable influx of people into the Las Vegas area. On the equipment side, the district has purchased 74 new buses, growing the fleet to 980 buses. The operation is run from four terminals, but the district is expanding in that area as well. The construction of two $15 million bus facilities was recently approved. Each will have a capacity of 500 buses. Despenza says the additional facilities may have more capacity than they need, even with the sprawling growth, unless the district decides to reduce the walking distance. Despite the need for additional drivers each year, the district does not have a driver shortage. “That’s primarily because of our wages and our equipment,” Despenza says. The starting wage for drivers is $12.60 an hour. Even the local transit agency does not pay as well. “We get many of our drivers from them,” he says. Each new bus has air-power doors, air-ride seats and sound-deadening ceilings. Many of the buses are equipped with the same type of air-conditioning systems that are used in motorcoaches. Despenza says the objective is to keep drivers happy — and safe. “A more relaxed, comfortable driver is a safer driver,” he says. The additional cost of these options is not a significant consideration. “We don’t put a price on the safety of students,” Despenza says. To provide drivers with a comfort zone at the start of the school year, the district has added two days of dry runs. Not only does this familiarize the drivers with their routes, it also allows them to meet the building administrators. When the driver reaches the school site, he takes a few minutes to introduce himself to the transportation liaison, whether that’s the principal, assistant principal or business manager. “That’s helped out tremendously,” Despenza says.

Manchester Transit Authority
Manchester, N.H.

The transit agency in Manchester has been handling school transportation for the Manchester School District for as long as anyone can remember. “It’s been 25 or 30 years at least,” says Donald Clay, general manager of the transit authority, which operates approximately 85 school buses in addition to 25 transit buses. The agency also maintains about 65 city vehicles, such as cars and light trucks. It’s all done with a crew of five mechanics and two garage helpers. “They all do an excellent job,” Clay says. His assertion is backed up by statistical evidence. According to Dick Clough of the New Hampshire School Transportation Association (NHSTA), the Manchester agency has been the “inspection champion” for several years, with the largest number of buses in a state fleet that have all passed on the first attempt. Clay credits an excellent preventive maintenance program that’s an “all-year event.” He says the objective is to keep the buses in perfect order 12 months a year, “not just during inspection time.” Some of his mechanics have more than 20 years of experience. The drivers also deserve credit, Clay says, for their dedication to proper pre- and post-trip inspections. Keeping the buses in good running order isn’t a problem; however, finding and keeping good drivers is. “Everybody’s short of school bus drivers,” Clay concedes. He encourages an active camaraderie among his drivers and praises Patricia Gola, his assistant superintendent of transportation, for establishing a good rapport with them. Because drivers are difficult to hire and retain, Clay says operational efficiency becomes a critical factor in the agency’s success. “We’re always trying to tighten our belts,” he says. “We try to keep the routes as tight as possible and consolidate as much as we can.” Clay is past president of NHSTA and credits the organization with providing a forum for the exchange of useful information. “Little things like that add up to success,” he says.

Frank D. Valcheck Inc.
Neshanic Station, N.J.

In an industry increasingly dominated by large, multinational companies, a former Navy diesel mechanic combines the personal touch with quality service. Frank Valcheck operates 40 school buses in Neshanic Station, about an hour’s drive north of Trenton. He contracts with two school boards — Bridgewater and Hillsborough — but also transports special-needs children to educational centers outside the school districts. Valcheck compares his operation to the corner grocery store, while industry heavyweights like Laidlaw and Ryder are more akin to the A&P. “You might be able to get a better price at the A&P, but the corner grocery store can provide one-on-one service,” he says. When a school district gets in a transportation bind, it won’t get lost in a bureaucratic maze if it contacts Valcheck. “As the chief cook and bottlewasher, I can make a decision right then and there,” he says. Valcheck started in the business with a single bus in 1963. He’s grown the business slowly but steadily and has weathered drastic changes. “I used to pay drivers four dollars per day, two dollars per route,” he says. These days, with the ongoing driver shortage, he’s careful to pay his drivers a bit more than local competitors. In addition, he arranges routes so his drivers can transport their own children to school. “That’s why I can keep them so long,” he says. Throughout the company’s growth, Valcheck has actively participated in the operation. In addition to occasionally driving a sub route, he also turns wrenches side-by-side with the company’s sole mechanic. Valcheck’s buses have a superior inspection and safety record. Last year, his bus terminal received a visit from New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, whose advisers thought it would be nice for her to be photographed with state motor vehicle inspectors at a model school bus operation.

Related Topics: Great Fleets

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