Great Fleets Across America, Part 2

Posted on October 1, 1999

Farmington Municipal School District
Farmington, N.M.

Sixteen years ago, Farmington became one of the first school districts in New Mexico to install cameras in its buses. Since then, officials have used surveillance videos to educate students on appropriate rider behavior, as well as to occasionally expose to parents their children’s on-board conduct. Transportation Director Bob Bevers says the cameras are “one of the most effective tools for discipline ever.” In addition to student management within the bus, drivers must somehow manage the environmental conditions without. Located in the Four Corners area of the state, Farmington Municipal School District encompasses mountains, forests, lakes and desert. Snowfall is heavy in the winter near the Colorado border. To increase safety in these occasionally harsh outdoor conditions, the district has installed strobe lights on the rooftop of each of its 79 buses. In poor visibility, strobe lights help drivers to see and to be seen by others. “I’d like to see them recommended minimum standard on all buses,” says Bevers. Beyond weather concerns, drivers must beware of other motorists — red-light runners in particular. Three years ago, Bevers started a red-light runner notification program. The program decreased the number of red-light runners by one half in its first year. Simple forms, completed by drivers, document motorist violations. These forms go to local police, who issue warning letters to motorists, explaining their violations and the fines that apply. When a particular area seems to be a problem, officers sit beside the bus stop and issue tickets on the spot. “I’d strongly advise any transportation department to work closely with local law enforcement agencies. It’s a very effective tool,” says Bever. When the program first started, Bevers received six to 10 notification forms a day from drivers. So far this year, the district is averaging only four a week.

Chappaqua Transportation Inc.
Chappaqua, N.Y.

Chappaqua Transportation Inc. has a simple abundance — of drivers. That’s an unusual circumstance, considering that school bus operators in the same vicinity are hard up for the same commodity. “We must be doing something right,” says Joan Corwin, president of the Chappaqua-based company. What she does is “treat the drivers with kid gloves.” For instance, drivers recently received a $50 back-to-work bonus. Later this year, they’ll likely find raffle tickets stapled to their time cards. Most importantly, they can count on recognition for a job well done. “It’s very important that they get praise,” says Corwin. “You just have to pump them up. I can’t tell you how important that is.” The average driver has been with Chappaqua for eight years. “I don’t really have any turnover,” Corwin says. She credits the company’s family atmosphere for the high retention rate. She uses the company newsletter to share personal information about staff members. “It’s not filled with industry stuff,” she says. “It holds them together because it’s about them as individuals.” Chappaqua employs about 110 people, including 95 drivers. The company’s currently working with seven school districts, including some who’ve beseeched Corwin to fill in the gaps while they try to recruit more drivers. “I’m doing the athletic runs for five different school districts because they haven’t got buses and drivers,” Corwin says. Corwin says the fleet has grown from 26 to 110 buses — about 50 full-size buses and 60 small buses — since she took over as manager in 1970. To remind her drivers of their awesome responsibility, she videotapes interviews with parents of kindergartners who are riding the bus for the first time. She asks the parents, “How do you feel about putting your child in the hands of a stranger?” The emotion displayed by these parents provides drivers with all the incentive they need to take their jobs seriously. “That creates a strong awareness of what the parents feel like.”

Davie County School System
Mocksville, N.C.

Despite its small size, Davie County School System is doing some big things. Through consolidation of routing, control over contract transportation and effective use of a computer routing system, the transportation department has maximized use of state funds and earned a budget rating of 100 percent. To salute its efficiency and commitment to service, the department was awarded the Excellence in Pupil Transportation Award last year from the Institute for Transportation Research and Education. Running 60 buses daily in Mocksville, N.C., Davie County uses a computer program called Transportation Information Management System (TIMS) to locate each student’s home and map routes for drivers. Todd Naylor, director of transportation, says this system has been “the biggest reducer of cost” for his department. Personnel is the most expensive item in their budget and the computerized system makes for very accurate accounting of the time it takes a driver to complete each route, thus eliminating overpayment errors. To further reduce expenditures, Naylor has contracted out special-needs transportation. He said that the average transportation cost for one of his district’s buses ranges from $1.37 to $1.57 a mile, whereas it costs only $1 a mile to contract out for their special-needs services, including bus, driver and monitor. With efficiency in mind, each of the nine schools in the district hires its own drivers and negotiates pay based on the routes it has to cover. This division of labor enables each school to take control of its transportation services and to monitor operations closely. But saving money doesn’t mean scrimping on safety. Drivers are offered at least three six-hour training sessions a year and are paid a stipend to attend. They are also awarded bonuses for perfect attendance and pay supplements for well-maintained vehicles — all of this without going over the $745,000 budget.

Dietrich’s Bus Service
Grand Forks, N.D.

Dietrich Bus Service embraces one of the key business fundamentals of the 1990s - customer service. The company prides itself on providing a high level of service to four school districts. “It’s the equipment, the drivers, everything,” says Don Enger, the company’s general manager. “We are very committed to having professional drivers.” Dietrich’s operates 115 buses from four locations. Rather than promote a single program to inspire its drivers, the company relies on the local managers to rally the troops. “Different things work for different people,” Enger says. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. At Jamestown Public Schoo1s, the company operates 20 to 25 buses and transports about 1,500 students. “They’ve done an excellent job for us,” says Superintendent David Haney. “They take a great burden off of me because I know that when they’re operating, it’s going to be done safely.” Haney is particularly impressed with Dietrich’s performance during inclement weather. “We have very severe winters here, and they go the extra mile, literally, to make sure that our programs run and that the kids are safe,” he says. Three of the past four winters have been unusually harsh, requiring close cooperation between contractor and school district. “Their office staff is up early and driving the roads to determine whether or not it’s safe for the buses to go,” says Haney. For his part, he’s monitoring the weather on radar. After comparing notes with Dietrich’s staff, Haney says he can make a decision by 6 a.m. “Safety is the primary issue, and they’re just extremely cooperative and very professional,” he says. Dietrich’s reputation at Valley City Public Schools, about 20 miles east of Jamestown along Interstate 94, is also strong. “The relationship that we have is just excellent,” says Superintendent Dean Koppelman. “I enjoy the contacts that I’ve had with them, from the owner, Richard Dietrich, to Don Enger, who does a lot of the coordination of service with the school. They’re great people to work with.” Enger says the company has enough drivers, even in the face of an unemployment rate that is effectively zero. “We do pretty well,” he says. “It reflects back on the managers. They’re not waiting for people to come to them, they go to the people.”

Winton Woods City Schools
Winton Woods, Ohio

“We’re really using our staffing and our resources to their ultimate value,” says Pete Japikse, transportation director for Winton Woods City Schools, where drivers each run an average of 10 routes per day. Located in a small urban area just north of Cincinnati, the district experiences what Japikse describes as an “economical” advantage in that routes are shorter and drivers can complete more of them per day than can drivers in other districts. As his 30 drivers put forth their full efforts, Japikse gives his 100 percent as well. He does all of the routing himself, a challenge he compares to working on “a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle where nothing is square.” In covering multiple routes, drivers interact with 200 to 300 students daily, making it difficult for them to get to know students individually. Not surprisingly, discipline is a major concern for drivers, who often don’t transport the same students in the afternoon as they do in the morning. Japikse has taken a team approach to discipline, working with drivers, school officials and parents. “We focus very heavily on getting parents involved at an early level,” says Japikse. “We’re actually asking parents to help solve the problem before we get to a disciplinary mode.” This approach to discipline, he says, is helping drivers and principals feel a greater sense of ownership over their jobs. Providing support in the area of discipline is just one of the steps the district takes toward retaining drivers. Winton Woods also offers its drivers the opportunity to work extra hours washing buses, doing vehicle maintenance, participating in school safety programs or training drivers from other districts. Having drivers provide extra services is highly cost-effective, says Japikse. Not only does it benefit the department, but it also supplies drivers with a supplemental source of income.

Tulsa Public Schools
Tulsa, Okla.

Bob Haddox, executive director of transportation at Tulsa Public Schools, wants to build the most technologically advanced school bus fleet in the nation. To that end, Haddox is equipping many of his fleet’s 75 special-needs buses with global positioning system (GPS) equipment and laptop computers. They should be ready for action in January, he says. The objectives are to track these buses in real time and to update and revise routes automatically, every day if necessary. This system would also provide parents with automated tracking information that could be obtained using a phone and a PIN number. To fund this high-tech movement, Haddox restructured the department and cut eight positions. In addition, he expects the GPS technology to provide operational savings of 20 to 25 percent. “We think that we can pay for the entire system without any increase in dollars spent by the district through the application of technology,” he says. Being on the cutting edge is nothing new for Tulsa’s transportation department. Three years ago, the department decentralized the operation into six mini-fleets of approximately 150 buses. Each mini-fleet is responsible for all aspects of the operation, including the budget. Although the program has required some learning-curve adjustments, Haddox says overhead has been reduced. “What I’m seeing happen is that they’re controlling expenses better because it’s their operation.” Tulsa’s transportation operation is Oklahoma’s largest, with 320 buses transporting approximately 20,000 children daily. In addition to its regular routes, the department transports children to about 18,000 field-trip locations each year and provides rental services to the public. Innovations aside, the district is having the same driver recruitment problems as the rest of the country. Haddox says he was 80 drivers short at the start of the school year. “We’re competing with everyone who’s offering full-time work,” he says. The only bright spot is that existing drivers can work eight hours per day or more.

Oregon City Public Schools
Oregon City, Ore.

Transportation Director Jane Frey says two of her most experienced drivers recently retired after 25 and 28 years on the job. Two other drivers, who’ve been with the district for nearly two decades, finally moved up the ladder. “They’ve waited 19 years to become senior drivers, to get that eight hours per day,” she says in amazement. “That’s a family when you’re together that long.” Family and community are important in this 125-square-mile district, located about 20 miles south of Portland. The vast majority of the district’s 61 drivers live within the community, which is what Frey prefers. “Drivers who live within the district take ownership of their responsibilities,” she says. “We’re expected to go the extra mile. Since we’re part of the community, we’re glad to help.” The district transports approximately 4,100 students per day, about 90 percent of the student population. Most of the district is rural, and many neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks. Frey says a driver was upset by a parent’s request to move a bus stop two bus lengths closer to her home. “I went out to the bus stop with her and asked her, ‘Would you want your 6-year-old to walk here?’” The driver shook her head. “Then why would you want someone else’s 6-year-old to walk here?” Because the driver shortage has had minimal effect on her program, Frey can be particular about whom she hires. She tries to bring aboard drivers with a professional appearance and attitude that inspire the trust of the community. “When the driver opens that door, and the parent looks at that driver, I want them to think, ‘Yes, I can entrust my child to that person.’” Frey says the district’s maintenance program, handled by three mechanics, is outstanding. The buses are pulled in every 1,500 miles for preventive maintenance. “For some of our vehicles that means they are serviced every week and a half,” she says, “because we’re so spread out.”

Van Lear Equipment
Reading, Pa.

Terry Van Lear, owner of Van Lear Equipment, runs a family business with his wife and two daughters, sees that his operation participates in the community through Easter Seals and multiple sclerosis fund raising, and aims for a one-on-one approach with his 215 employees. Because of the personal touch, Van Lear is able to maintain a great 178-school bus fleet operation. Van Lear Equipment transports 12,500 students daily, serving six school districts, two vo-tech schools and several private schools. Van Lear believes that by running a hands-on operation, he and his family are not isolated from the workers, and that is the key to the company's success. The Van Lear drivers are in “constant” training, with four safety classes this year — up from three last year. The concept of the classes is simple, yet effective: How to make a safer ride for passengers. All bus maintenance and repairs are provided by staff mechanics on at the company’s two garages. Interestingly, the state government is a direct competitor with Van Lear for contracts. Because of this recent government competition, the company has taken a keen approach to streamlining operations, keeping costs down while maintaining their high safety standards. The recent addition of a safety officer contributes to these goals in two ways. Since the officer's job is to ensure the company's safety, he is able to supervise and help the drivers more directly. Having a safety officer also reduces Van Lear's potential liability, so the company qualifies for a reduced rate with their insurance carrier. The company has worked out deals out with fueling sites, leading to a greater discount in fuel prices. By staying in touch with the drivers, the community and his vendors, Van Lear is able to run an efficient operation.

Westerly School Department
Westerly, R.I.

The smallest state in the union has produced a school bus operation with a big heart. The Westerly School Department has a corps of drivers who strongly support each other as well as the school community. “We know our kids, and we know our parents,” says 13-year driver Mary Becker. Rarely do the drivers switch routes, which helps to strengthen their bond with the students. “There have been drivers who have made a difference in these kids’ lives,” she says. “Sometimes we’re the only friendly faces they see all day.” Becker says the drivers are more than coworkers. “We’re also good friends,” she says. That friendship is extended throughout the bus compound. “We have a wonderful rapport with our two mechanics,” she says, adding that drivers occasionally “motivate” the mechanics with home-baked apple pies and other goodies. “Those buses are ready to roll — rain, snow or any kind of weather,” she says. Transportation Director Betty Tillinghast says she’s had drivers who’ve been on the job for more than 30 years. That’s equivalent to her own longevity. She started driving a bus in 1968 and worked her way up to her current position in 1980. “I love working with these people,” she says. The district transports approximately 3,500 children using 42 buses and 28 drivers. The operating budget for this school year is $1.3 million. The biggest challenge, Tillinghast says, is “trying to keep the parents satisfied with safety issues.” Changing the location of a bus stop is a common concern among parents. Sometimes their demands are reasonable; other times, quite the opposite. “Sometimes I just have to bite my lip,” she says.

Lexington School District #2
West Columbia, S.C.

“A Driving Force in Children’s Lives” is the catchy motto of the transportation department at Lexington School District. But Jim Pope, the district’s transportation director, contends there’s real substance behind the slogan. “We’re real proud of how far we’ve come in the past five or six years,” he says. “The district has placed transportation on par with other programs. They understand the importance of getting young people to school.” According to Pope, the district’s 80 school buses transport approximately 4,800 students to 17 locations each day. The operating budget, $1.2 million, covers the salaries of 80 staff members, among other things. Pope says these 80 employees provide the framework for the department’s overarching success. “It’s the people that make the program,” he says. Pope doesn’t discount, however, the importance of a comfortable, well-appointed transportation facility. And he has exactly that. About three years ago, the district unveiled a new six-acre transportation yard in West Columbia, located adjacent to Columbia, that included an 1,800-square-foot administrative building, a break room equipped with cable TV and a VCR, a paved bus parking lot with 90 numbered spaces, a bus wash area and a CDL skills training and testing area. The entire site is fully lighted and secured. The previous transportation facility was primitive by comparison, Pope says. It was located next to a hill behind a high school and had an unpaved parking area, which complicated some of the onsite repairs. “Creepers don’t roll real well on gravel,” Pope points out. (The state owns and maintains school buses in South Carolina. Most of the maintenance is done at a state facility in Lexington about 15 miles from the transportation center.) As an added benefit, a commercial greenhouse was built on the transportation grounds. It’s operated by special-needs students who are involved in a transition-to-work program. Pope says the students are a welcome presence at the facility and seem “very relaxed” in the presence of the transportation staff. Pope says his staff has suffered the typical amount of turnover, “but we also have a large number of people who have been with us for seven years or more.” The drivers enjoy their time with each other. “They’re always doing things together,” he says. “It really is a family atmosphere.”

Harlow’s School Bus Service Inc.
Webster, S.D.

In Webster, perched in the northeast corner of South Dakota, “everything is small,” says Ron Block, general manager of Harlow’s School Bus Service. Everything, that is, except the bus routes. These are long, which under other circumstances might create behavior management problems. Not so in Webster. “Most of the kids do their homework on the bus or they have a nap,” Block says. “Generally, they’re well behaved.” Harlow’s operates buses for four South Dakota school districts. The company also has school bus operations in North Dakota, Montana and Idaho. Block’s operation transports approximately 900 students using 20 route buses. Block says his driver count is above 50, but concedes that Webster is not immune to the driver shortage. “Hiring drivers is quite difficult,” he says. “So when you get drivers, you try your darndest to keep them.” A key factor in driver retention is job satisfaction. “Drivers have to know that what they do is important,” Block says. “And they’ve got to like what they do. That means that they have to like children and they’ve got to like driving. The vast majority of our drivers are parents and do like children. That’s why they stay.” Harlow’s drivers average only 15 to 20 hours per week, mainly to supplement their incomes. Many of them are farmers. All of them are experienced in driving in inclement weather. “Because we start picking up kids before 7 a.m., many times a school bus is the first vehicle down the road after a snow storm,” Block says. Rainy weather also poses problems. “We’ve had eight years of very wet weather with a lot of roads that have been flooded. That means a lot of detours. That’s been a challenge as well,” Block says. The company maintains its 30-bus fleet with three full-time mechanics. Harlow’s is affiliated with Harlow’s Bus Sales Inc., an AmTran-International-Mid Bus dealer for five states. The tie-in with the sales arm has advantages. “We’re able to replace buses quickly or we can take a trade-in from a school district and put it to work while we’re waiting for someone to purchase it,” he says. “The two companies work hand in hand.”

Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
Clarksville, Tenn.

Hailed as one of the most progressive and innovative districts in the Southeast, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System takes pride in staying ahead of the technological curve in school transportation. “We’re sort of on the cutting edge of everything,” says Transportation Director Joe Haley. For example, the district has embraced computerized routing, laptop computers in the shop for diagnostics and computerized radio trunking, which will enable workers to use their radios like cellular phones, without the hassle of sharing frequencies and overhearing other conversations. It would be easy to overshoot the budget with this technological fervor, but Haley says he’s managed to control the overhead. “If you operate efficiently, you can have about anything you need, and you can be very innovative,” he says. He advises watching the budget daily, just like you would at home. The school district, north of Nashville, transports 17,500 students daily on 212 buses, including 26 special-needs buses that serve one of the largest special-education programs in the state. Fleet maintenance is performed in a state-of-the-art facility that’s conducive to regular preventive maintenance. Haley says his department has received full clearance on every state inspection and remains the only system within Tennessee to inspect its own buses once a month. Haley says that his department has tried to be a forerunner, but has done it by borrowing ideas from other districts. “Every time I go to a conference, the main thing I do is pick people’s minds on what they’re doing,” he says. Then he puts the ideas into action.

Corpus Christi Independent School District
Corpus Christi, Texas

Keeping school bus drivers happy and informed go hand-in-hand. So says Don Davenport, interim transportation director at Corpus Christi Independent School District, located along the state’s southern gulf coast. “We try to instill in people that this is a great job and that we’ll support them with whatever they need,” he says. Davenport, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, believes that his 200 drivers and attendants need more than the standard training. Before the start of school, he booked a conference room at a Holiday Inn and had his drivers undergo training in crisis management, communication, dealing with children with special needs and dealing with themselves. “People have to be taught certain things, especially in how to deal with one another,” he says. One driver approached Davenport after the meeting and told him, “I’ve been here for 19 years and no one has ever done this for us.” He is still warmed by that memory. “When I leave here, I’ll always remember that, because it made me feel good,” he says. Davenport is also proud of his maintenance staff, which takes care of 197 school buses, 113 other wheeled vehicles and 245 other pieces of equipment such as lawn mowers and weed eaters. Thirteen mechanics — 10 of whom are ASE certified — and three supervisors staff the garage from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The district encourages ASE certification by paying for the tests. “It’s been a big morale booster,” Davenport says. The district transports 8,000 students at a cost of approximately $7 million. Davenport says one method of controlling costs is to reduce unscheduled maintenance. To this end, he stocks a golf cart with lights and fluids and sends it around the bus lot while the vehicles are being pre-tripped. Drivers who find problems with lights or fluids simply hang a sign that says “L” or “F.” The problem can be handled by a mechanic’s helper without a trip to the shop. “That’s how we keep our availability up,” he says.

Uintah School District
Vernal, Utah

The transportation department at Uintah School District serves 13 schools, 3,880 students and 180 routes a day, scores points for its emphasis on safety and its accuracy in reporting mileage and route times to the state. Last year, Brent Huffman, pupil transportation specialist for the state office of education, oversaw statewide audits for several district transportation systems and was particularly impressed with the results in Uintah. He said inspectors observed a fleet whose drivers conducted extremely thorough pre- and post-trip inspections; oversaw excellent loading and unloading procedures and effectively conveyed bus stop safety to students. Because the district’s 51 yellow buses are all large vehicles — 84-passenger, 40-foot buses — Uintah requires drivers to practice their driving skills on skill courses that replicate those used in state and national roadeo competitions. “The safety of our students is our top priority,” says Floyd Collett, supervisor coordinator of transportation. “We have a huge mural hanging in our office that says ‘Children are our Business, Safety is our Goal.’ It’s a constant reminder to everyone.” Uintah only offers contracted positions to drivers who have worked for a minimum two to three years as substitute drivers and have demonstrated their driving skills to the district. There are 39 full-time drivers, two part-time drivers, five substitute drivers and five drivers in training. “The older drivers help the younger drivers by showing them the ropes,” explains Collett. “In an emergency, the more experienced drivers rub off on the newer ones so that everyone knows how to fall into line and do what they’re supposed to do.” The audit also showed only a 3 percent deviation in the mileage and 2 percent deviation in the route times for Uintah District as reported by its drivers. “Uintah has helped protect taxpayer money by not inflating their numbers,” says Huffman, who explained that the state uses these figures to determine operating budgets allotted for student transportation. “They’ve made a conscientious effort to explain to their drivers the importance of reporting accurately.” Uintah logs an average 3,787 miles each day, with a $1.9 million annual budget. According to Collett, the entire 57-member staff, including two mechanics, takes pride in all areas of their work. “Even in the garage, the floors are so clean you can eat off them, seriously,” he marvels.

Bet-Cha Transit Inc.
New Haven, Vt.

Charles R. Smith started his business in 1968 with a handshake, not a contract. For $5,400, he bought a new 1969 International with a Thomas body and embarked on a career that has spanned more than three decades. Smith, a dairy farmer, got started in the business by subbing as a school bus driver in 1967. The next year, a school board member asked him to take a one-bus contract and offered him a loan at 2 percent interest. “They were just desperate,” Smith says. He accepted the job, sealing it with a handshake. He continued to work as a dairy farmer until 1979, when he sold that business to become a full-time contractor. These days, he operates up to 90 school buses and deals with 34 towns and districts. His company, Bet-Cha Transit, has 75 regular runs and transports approximately 4,000 students per day. Most of his contracts are close to home; the farthest is 50 miles from his home base. In a highly competitive business, Smith has something that’s relatively rare — a sterling reputation. “He’s an old Vermonter type with a heart of gold,” says Kevin Endres, who sold Milton, Vt.-based Mountain Transit Inc. to Atlantic Express earlier this year. “His equipment wasn’t the best or the newest, but he was always committed to safe transportation of children.” Smith recently traded in many of his older buses for new vehicles, citing practicality as well as public image. “People don’t like to see their children being driven around in rust buckets,” he says. The new buses also make life easier for his longtime service manager, Ronald Martell. “He’s been with me for 30 years,” Smith says. “I couldn’t run the business without him.” Smith maintains his marketshare by keeping his overhead low enough to allow him to bid competitively. “We try to keep our bids economical,” he says. “I just want to try to make a living.” Smith’s greatest challenge is finding drivers. “I have to advertise all the time,” he says. More than just putting people behind the wheel, Smith says the secret is finding the right people. “To become a bus driver, you have to be the best in the community,” he says. “They’re high-caliber people.”

Norfolk City Public Schools
Norfolk, Va.

John Hazelette is proud of his district’s philosophy on customer service. As director of transportation for the 55 Norfolk City Public Schools, he considers himself and his department responsible not only for transporting 19,000 students daily, but also for ensuring their safety from morning to afternoon. His department developed a hazard investigation team composed of a traffic engineer for the city, the executive officer of the traffic division for the police department, the transportation director (Hazelette) and a parent from the Norfolk County PTA. “We have a lot of our kids that walk to school, being in an urban area,” he explains. “If the parents or the schools or anybody feels that the route may be hazardous in some way, we’ll all get in the car together and actually go out and review all the circumstances.” The hazard team offers a broad range of perspectives on the safety issue. Often, bus routes can be altered to pick up students walking in unsafe areas, or crossing guards can be hired for added protection. “We have a group of individuals from a lot of different walks of life that can make an educated decision as far as what’s the best way to go about it,” says Hazelette. His team also installs video cameras on their school buses to observe student behavior. The school principals show the videos in student assemblies to remind students that they are being monitored and that standards will be enforced. The Norfolk City Public Schools have also been recognized for an aggressive program aimed at deterring motorists from passing stopped school buses. Using a survey from drivers pinpointing problem areas, they worked with the police department to position an unmarked vehicle on the road to issue tickets to non-complying motorists. “Virginia has done a survey over the past few years and we have seen our reported incidents from our drivers almost cut in half. So we’re really excited about that process and the success we’ve had out here,” says Hazelette, who plans to use the same strategy this year. Driver shortage is the biggest problem their department faces this year. To deal with the problem, they offer recruitment bonuses, training bonuses and employee recognition programs. “Make people feel a part of the big team,” reminds Hazelette. “Student achievement is what we’re after.”

Edmonds School District
Edmonds, Wash.

Edmonds School District, transporting 10,000 students daily in five cities north of Seattle, prides itself on being employee-oriented. And it shows. The district commits $50,000 a year to in-service training, which includes interactive learning activities, motivational speakers and employee rewards. “We try to put an emphasis on our people,” says Reg Clarke, program director. All drivers are provided with name placards to hang in their buses and are paid for attending school open house and orientation nights to meet parents. Drivers personally call parents when problems arise with students, something many districts do not trust their drivers to do. “If you can’t trust them to do that, then maybe they shouldn’t be driving a school bus,” says Clarke, who believes that the way to get the best employees is to instill in them a sense of responsibility. “I want somebody who will love, discipline, teach and ensure the safety of the children on our buses,” he says. His drivers regularly volunteer their time at local community events and have also won an “Excellence in Education” award from Western Washington University for the safety play they personally wrote, directed and performed. In a program that continues to be a success with kids K-3, drivers don animal costumes and sing and dance about school bus safety. Clarke expects his entire transportation staff to become involved with students and to ride a bus or greet buses at schools for two hours a month to “remind them that they’re working for kids.” Like drivers, mechanics in Edmonds take on more responsibility than in many other districts. They each maintain a set of approximately 30 of the 147 district buses, which includes inputting information into the computers and communicating with drivers. In assuming responsibility for specific vehicles, says Clarke, the mechanics take more pride in their work and the drivers know who to turn to when they need help. Clarke trusts and supports his staff and is rarely disappointed. He says it all comes down to treating employees like human beings, rather than numbers.

Kanawha County Schools
Charleston, W.V.

Kanawha County Schools does what few other school districts can do — offer its drivers a regular 40-hour work week. Drivers have the option of working a regular schedule of eight hours per day or selecting a flex-time arrangement that allows them to schedule 40 hours based on their availability. “Drivers like it, the schools like it,” says George Beckett, administrative assistant for pupil transportation. He says this system bolsters the department’s safety program and saves the district thousands of dollars. Beckett says the department offers ongoing safety training one day a month, which can help to fill in the drivers’ hours. In addition, the flex-time arrangement “allows us to provide field trips without having to provide extra driver costs. The school pays only for mileage,” he says. Only recently has a driver shortage surfaced at the district. Previously, the department had more than its share of drivers due to dwindling enrollment and a switch to a three-tiered bell system. Since 1976, the district has seen its fleet shrink from 219 to 150 school buses. Currently, the district transports about 20,200 students to 65 school sites. To deal with the driver shortage, the district has begun offering incentives to recruits. First, evening training classes have been added to the schedule to accommodate applicants with 9-to-5 jobs. In addition, the district has agreed to start paying recruits to attend training. Ruth Hatfield — a national roadeo champion in the conventional class in 1982 — runs the training and safety program. “She is excellent,” says Beckett. Maintenance of the fleet’s 150 buses is performed at five terminals. Beckett says the ordering and distribution of parts was centralized recently to improve efficiency. The transportation department also offers student outreach. Transportation teams from each terminal visit schools to provide safety training. The district is hitting the elementary schools the hardest by using Buster the Bus to demonstrate safety. “The kids love it,” says Beckett.

Dousman Transport Inc.
Kettle-Moraine, Wis.

Magda Dimmendaal, owner of Dousman Transport Co., says she hasn’t even advertised for drivers this year. Given her company’s paltry 5 percent turnover rate, that’s not surprising. What is surprising, however, is that she credits building administrators with helping her retain drivers. “They realize that busing is not a four-letter word,” says Dimmendaal. Principals and other site administrators have consistently supported her drivers on passenger discipline issues. And supporting the drivers is critical. “Pamper them, pamper them and pamper them” is Dimmendaal’s advice on keeping drivers behind the wheel. Dimmendaal bought the company, headquartered about 35 miles west of Milwaukee, more than 10 years ago and has more than doubled its size. She now operates 107 school buses for three school districts — Kettle Moraine, Arrowhead Area and Mukwonago. Each district is served from a separate terminal. Four mechanics at two maintenance facilities handle the upkeep of the equipment. Though the ratio of buses to mechanics is high at 26 to 1, Dimmendaal says nearly half of her fleet is less than 3 years old. Dimmendaal says she’s a firm believer in safety, but admits that she doesn’t hold monthly safety meetings. “We don’t hold meetings for the sake of holding meetings,” she explains. She prefers to hold them when necessary, especially if she can schedule an interesting speaker. Before the start of the school year, Dimmendaal tries to arrange for a motivational speaker to address the drivers. These speakers, she says, can be expensive, so she sometimes splits the cost with other school bus companies in the area. The company’s insurance carrier occasionally helps to pay the speaker costs as well. “The insurance company realizes that if you have happy drivers, you also have safe drivers,” Dimmendaal says.

Fremont County School District #25
Riverton, Wyo.

“I’m always happy to be of help to people in the state,” says Otto Uecker, who oversees the Riverton district’s fleet of 31 school buses, which transport 950 students to eight schools daily. Uecker believes that his organization has a unique system of transferring students. “We pick up all of our students in our rural routes, bring them into a central transfer area; then one to three buses goes to each school to deliver students.” In all, 22 buses come into the transfer area. The organization has been able to reduce the number of routes each bus runs, leading to a more efficient operation. Before Uecker's tenure, the district used to take each bus out to the routes twice a day. Uecker also mentions that there are many organizations around Wyoming , such as the Wyoming Pupil Transportation Association, that have been of great help to him as he worked to improve the operation. He says, “There were no records kept at this facility when I started this program, so all of our maintenance practices, our driver forms and practices, and driver training were all developed when I began here.” Uecker says he is never afraid to try new things and that he works, “Not just for [this district], but statewide.” Uecker works with a 30-person, mostly part-time staff. (Only he and two mechanics work full time.) He says that they don't have a lot of turnover because they are able to pay about twice as much per hour as the employees would receive at a fast-food restaurant or clerking at a retail store. Recent improvements to the operations are upgrades to the drivers’ lounge, maintenance shop and grounds, including the transfer area. They have upgraded the fleet, which is composed of 27 forward-control transit-style buses and four special-education buses. Driver benefits and wages have also improved recently.

Related Topics: Great Fleets

Comments ( 0 )
More Stories

School Bus Driver Stabbed, Assaulted

An Ohio school bus driver begins her morning route and is attacked by the suspect, who boarded the bus the night before, police say. Hilliard City Schools takes immediate security measures.

Be the First to Know

Get the latest news and most popular articles from SBF delivered straight to your inbox. Stay on top of the school bus industry and don't miss a thing!