Great Fleets Across America, Part I

Posted on October 1, 2000

Welcome to the second installment of “Great Fleets Across America.” Last year we unveiled this celebration of excellence in our October/November issue and received such positive response that we decided to reprise the event.

The 50 transportation programs featured in this year’s edition are examples of an ongoing commitment to safety, efficiency, innovation, pride and morale. They understand the awesome responsibility given to them — transporting other people’s children — and embrace the opportunity to perform this service in a safe and efficient manner.

We found that the best operations put people first, both employees and customers. They understand that a school bus driver’s smile may be the first positive overture that a child receives in the morning.

We live in a society that’s changing rapidly, requiring schools and their transportation programs to be flexible in meeting the needs of students, parents and community. Great Fleets have this ability because they understand that change is the only thing we can predict with any certainty.

So, without any further elaboration, we present 50 of the top school bus operations in America. Enjoy.

The profiles were primarily written by staff editors Steve Hirano, Sandra Matke, Greg Basich and Denise Bibee. Freelance writers Cathy Stephens and George Furukawa also contributed.

Morgan County Schools
Decatur, Ala.

Fleet composition: 93 buses
Students transported daily: 3,853
Schools served: 15
Approximate daily mileage: 4,967
George Crawford, transportation director

A fleet of well-maintained school buses is a necessary ingredient to an exemplary pupil transportation program. At Morgan County Schools, the buses provide a strong base for the rest of the operation.

“We do preventive maintenance every month, and we don’t run any recapped tires,” says George Crawford, transportation director. “We always run our buses on new tires in the front and back.”

Crawford prides himself on the quality of his fleet. All Morgan County’s buses were manufactured in 1992 or later and even spare buses are in top condition. “We have enough spare buses so that if we have a problem we can take the bus in and put a good bus out there as a sub. We have very few problems with breakdowns,” says Crawford.

Mechanics use laptops to diagnose engine problems. The computers greatly improve the speed of repair by allowing mechanics to contact the factory online and analyze the diagnostic files themselves, getting instructions and advice on mechanical problems.

Staying on top of bus maintenance is only one part of his operation’s overall strength, says Crawford, who also stresses the importance of having modern support equipment. With video cameras and cell phones on larger buses and two-way radios on smaller buses, Crawford’s drivers stay in constant contact with the office and can easily call for help in an emergency. His drivers have had occasion to use these devices when children have had medical emergencies and when they’ve gotten on the wrong bus. “If there’s a storm or flooding, the drivers can tell us the road is flooded and that they can’t travel that road and then we can do something about it,” explains Crawford.


Laidlaw Education Services
Kodiak Island, Alaska

Fleet composition: 24 buses
Students transported daily: 1,830
Schools served: 10
Number of drivers: 24
Driver wages: $10 per hour to start

Kodiak Island is a one-hour flight or a 12-hour ferry ride from the mainland. Laidlaw Education Services, contractor for the Kodiak Island Borough School District, transports 1,830 students daily on 19 school bus routes. Two routes service the remote villages of Port Lions and Old Harbor. Both villages are without connecting roads, forcing the mechanic to fly in. Two routes service the town of Chiniak, located 45 miles from Kodiak and accessible by a gravel road once used for logging. These routes require all-wheel drive buses with air-ride suspension and automatic chains.

Branch manager Scott Greenstreet, who is an ASE-certified mechanic, assists the operation’s one mechanic in servicing all 24 of the fleet’s buses. Once a month Greenstreet flies out to the remote villages to perform inspections on the local buses. When an emergency arises, he charters a plane to fly out right away, even calling a pilot at home when necessary. “Never in five years have we missed a run,” says Greenstreet of his tenure with the company. Every year in that same five-year period, Kodiak’s buses have received perfect state inspections.

In addition to mountainous terrain and harsh weather conditions, Laidlaw’s Kodiak drivers must contend with nearly seven months of complete darkness. That’s why pedestrian lights are indispensable, says Tom Hyatt, Laidlaw’s area manager for Alaska. “They light up the area so the drivers can see where the kids are,” he says. The lights, which are mounted on the top of the bus in the front, illuminate the area in front of and beside the bus every time the bus door is opened.

Drivers receive an hour to an hour and a half of in-service training monthly in addition to an eight-hour in-service twice yearly. Strong driver training combined with good vehicle maintenance and regular upgrading of equipment keep the fleet in top condition.


Creighton School District

Fleet composition: 42 buses
Students transported daily: 5,000
District area: 17 square miles
Number of drivers: 32
Rudy Rivera, transportation director

Creighton School District transports 5,000 students with its fleet of 42 buses. The district encourages drivers to participate in school activities in order to improve driver relations with students and parents. School involvement, combined with competitive wages, benefits and extensive training, keep the staff active and in good spirits. Currently, half of the district’s drivers receive full benefits, and Rudy Rivera, transportation director, is working to secure benefits for all of his staff members.

Creighton staff members participate in community and school events, such as carnivals, open house days and school festivals. Drivers recently volunteered their time over a period of three months to attach 20,000 lights to a school bus for the Electric Light Parade. The parade was seen by more than 500,000 people in person and on television.

Drivers at all eight district schools participated in this year’s Read Across America program. Using books they purchased with their own money, drivers held 20-minute reading sessions with groups of children on their buses.

Creighton School District has a comprehensive training program that emphasizes dealing with the diverse situations that arise as a result of the frequently changing routes. “As an inner city school, the Creighton student population tends to be more transient than most, challenging the routing system with daily and weekly changes,” explains Rivera. “I have worked in a few school districts over the past 20 years and the training done here is by far the best I have ever seen.”

When asked why Creighton stands out, Cathy Erwin, driver trainer safety specialist, points to the school bus being an extension of the classroom. She says it’s important to take the job to the next level by allowing the students ownership of their trip to and from school and by “letting them know that we’re more than just bus drivers and bus attendants.”


Fort Smith School District
Fort Smith, Ark.

Fleet composition: 57 buses
Students transported daily: 1,400
Schools served: 27
Number of drivers: 47
Operating budget: $1.2 million
Daily mileage: 1,550 miles
Driver wages: long routes: $42; short routes: $38
Howard Pearson, transportation director

To combat the driver shortage, transportation officials at Fort Smith School District pay recruits for training if they stay on more than 90 days after hire. They also encourage their 24 bus aides to get their CDLs, so that they can help drive when necessary. “It makes it so much easier. The aide can jump into the driver’s seat if a driver calls in sick,” explains Mike Sosebee, transportation specialist, who notes that aides know the routes better than ordinary subs do. About 30 percent of Fort Smith’s aides are currently licensed to drive a school bus. The district’s driver pool also includes several coaches and teachers, some of whom drive a daily route.

Once a year, Sosebee and Transportation Director Howard Pearson monitor drivers’ skills by riding along on routes. First Sosebee will ride the bus and provide constructive criticism and positive reinforcement to the driver. On a later date, Pearson will ride the same bus and look to see that any errors noted in the first evaluation have been corrected. “It’s the little things you notice, just by riding with them,” says Sosebee, who feels small infractions are best caught early on rather than left to develop into dangerous situations.

“We really push bus safety,” says Sosebee, who enlisted the help of a friend in building a miniature working school bus for use in teaching school bus safety to kindergarten through third-grade students. A full-size bus and this miniature bus are taken to 20 elementary schools where children get hands-on safety lessons. “We don’t talk about chewing gum and throwing paper wads. We talk about things that save people’s lives,” says Sosebee.


Monterey County Office of Education
Monterey, Calif.

Fleet composition: 85 buses
Students transported daily: 1,000
Schools served: 40
Number of drivers: 70
Operations budget: $3 million
Average driver wages: $15 to $16 per hour
Marge Camacho, transportation supervisor
Eleanor Taylor, assistant supervisor of instruction

The Monterey County Office of Education has successfully merged two transportation departments, despite the retirement of two key administrative personnel and a push for privatization. Dedicated bus drivers have continued to do their job while withstanding these adjustments and growing pains.

Six years ago, a contractor approached the district. “It looked like it was going to go to the contractor because they could offer us a substantial savings,” says Marge Camacho, transportation supervisor. The district’s 35 bus drivers appealed to their union, stating they would do whatever was needed to match the contractor’s bid.

By taking a $1.75-per-hour pay cut, giving up five paid holidays and a percentage of their medical coverage, the drivers succeeded in matching the contractor’s bid. “At that time I worried that the quality of our service was going to fail, but it never did,” says Camacho. Rewarded for their continued dedication, their original salary package was reinstated this year. “I think their dedication showed the county that they were willing to do the job regardless,” says Camacho. The number of bus drivers and buses has since doubled.

Each day drivers fill out a log of their accident-free mileage. The fleet technician tabulates these miles and drivers receive pins based on the number of accident-free miles driven. With some drivers logging 150 to 250 miles per day, distance can add up quickly. “The increments are 100,000, 200,000 and up. We’re up to 400,000, and we’ve got pins ready for the 500,000 mark,” says Eleanor Taylor, assistant supervisor of instruction and training.

One of the district’s most recent projects is a monthly newsletter, profiling a “driver of the month” who is nominated by his peers. “We look for a safe driver, someone who keeps a clean bus, being friendly with the parents, students and staff, and all around well-liked,” says Taylor.


Laidlaw Education Services
Montrose, Colo.

Fleet composition: 50
Students transported daily: 2,000
Districts served: 2
Schools served: 6
Daily mileage: 2,500

The Montrose, Colo., location of Laidlaw Education Services prides itself on meeting and exceeding the needs of its staff, its clients and the community.

Serving two school districts, Montrose RE-1J and Ridgeway R-2, Laidlaw’s fleet of 50 buses transport 2,000 students daily. One of its initiatives is the mainstreaming of special-needs students. To that end, it has bolstered its fleet with large buses that are equipped for special-needs transportation.

To keep drivers in high spirits, the company has implemented several incentive programs, such as a safety bingo contest, awards for accident-free driving and gifts for employees celebrating anniversaries with the company. Winners of safety bingo get cash prizes of up to $1,500, and employees with anniversaries receive jackets, decals or pins. Laidlaw uniforms, provided free to employees, help to create a sense of team spirit.

The maintenance staff at Laidlaw combines skill, experience and a high regard for safety and efficiency. “They take pride in performing maintenance work on the buses and in not having problems with breakdowns and driver complaints about them,” says Shipley. “If drivers have a problem with a bus, they diagnose it, get it fixed and then they can send it back out on the road.”

Laidlaw offers its drivers and equipment to many community-sponsored events. During the winter, the company donates buses to be used as shuttles at the local carnival. The company has also signed on as a corporate sponsor of the Children’s Miracle Network. Finally, Laidlaw has adopted a section of highway outside of Montrose as part of the Adopt-A-Highway program. A couple of times each year, employees get together and head out to the road to pick up trash and help keep the community clean.


Salter's Express Co.
Simsbury, Conn.

Fleet composition: 40 buses
Students transported daily: 4,600
Schools served: 8
Number of drivers: 50
Average driver wage: $12 per hour

With the ongoing driver shortage, school bus operators can’t afford to be too selective when it comes to driver hiring. However, Salter’s Express believes that it can’t afford not to be selective.

James Salter Jr., the company’s vice president, says he will turn away prospective drivers if they don’t have the proper personality or attitude for the job. He admits that it’s not an easy thing to do. “People aren’t beating our door down looking for a job,” he says.

Effective driver screening provides returns down the line, however. Increased retention rates and higher levels of service are the end result. That’s important to Salter. His company has been providing school transportation in Simsbury since 1924 and thus has a long history of quality service.

Salter credits this success to a strong emphasis on driver training and employee relations. “Our safety director trains drivers personally,” he says, adding that an outside consultant is occasionally brought in for specialized training.

Salter urges drivers to set a respectful tone early in the school year, encouraging them to request help from a principal or the company when there is a problem, and not waiting to ask for help after there is “total chaos” on the bus. He believes consistency is necessary in dealing with students. “After doing this for 16 years, I’ve found that if I treat the kids with a little bit of respect, then they give me respect.”

Salter fondly remembers the late Edmund Johnson, a 22-year driver for Salter’s Express who won the inaugural School Bus Driver of the Year award in 1989. The award was created by the Connecticut School Transportation Association to recognize successful drivers with long service histories. “When Ed received the award, it showed the state that there are good people out there taking their kids to school,” says Salter.


Christina School District
Wilmington, Del.

Fleet composition: 257 state-owned buses, 60 contractor buses
Students transported daily: 18,000
Schools served: 26
Staff size: 350
Average driver wages: $12.45 per hour
Ron Albence, transportation supervisor

Ask anyone at Christina School District, and they will tell you that running the largest bus fleet in the state is no easy task. Especially during such an extreme driver shortage. The district runs 257 state-owned and 60 contractor buses and is currently 10 drivers short. “We’re at a critical state because of the manpower issues,” explains Transportation Supervisor Ron Albence. To cover routes, Albence has mechanics, office staff and all other CDL-certified employees drive on a daily basis.

Since drivers are such a precious commodity, Albence does everything he can to retain them. The average driver for the district is paid $12.45 an hour. Substitute drivers receive full pay and earn their hours doing various departmental duties when not driving routes. To entice people to come to work daily, the district has an attendance incentive program with a possible $100 bonus award, a certificate and a district jacket.

Drivers for Christina School District face several unique challenges. Contract drivers transport students to an autistic program as well as to a school for the deaf and several other special-needs programs that are located up to 100 miles away. District drivers service various other special-needs routes, four of which start daily at 3:00 a.m. and travel 60 miles away to retrieve students. There are 30 buses involved in transporting fourth- through sixth-grade students to schools of choice, such as a foreign language academy and a business center. These 500 children are picked up from all over the district, often in far-off suburban or rural areas up to 60 miles away, and brought to transfer points, where they consolidate onto 18 buses headed for the schools.

The future holds yet more challenges for Christina’s transportation department. The legislature has mandated a return to neighborhood schools, which will require the construction of new facilities and a complete redistricting. “We’ve had thousands and thousands of homes built. The county has expanded so far we’ve almost run out of space,” says Albence.


Hillsborough County School Board
Thonotosassa, Fla.

Fleet composition: 1,266 buses
Students transported: 84,000 annually
Schools served: 185
Number of staff: 1,513
District area: 1,053 square miles
Mileage: 23.3 million miles annually
Driver wages: $9.02 per hour to start; $16.66 top. Average: $11.63 per hour

With a fleet of 1,266 buses, the Hillsborough County School Board runs the eighth-largest school bus program in the nation. Covering a region that includes urban, suburban and rural areas, the district meets the challenges of special-needs transportation, desegregation busing, magnet school transportation and busing by choice. This year, for the first time, district officials will pilot test routing software in one section of the 1,053-square-mile district. “We’re not currently using software for routing at all,” says Beverly DeMott, transportation director, who admits that routing for such a large fleet is no easy task.

The Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program utilizes 253 of the district’s buses. All ESE routes have attendants on them, and attendants and drivers work together to come up with solutions to the unique challenges of special-needs transportation. One district employee designed training dolls that were later manufactured by the four-person in-house upholstery department. The dolls, which have weights inside, are used to teach drivers and attendants how to properly lift students into and out of chairs on the bus. The upholstery department also designed upholstered wheelchair lap trays made of hard foam rubber. These trays, unlike regular trays which are rigid and hazardous for use on-board, can provide a student with upper torso control during transport.

Safety is a top priority at Hillsborough, where transportation officials work with the school safety office and local committees to monitor driver behavior and track road conditions. The district has 12 radar units for clocking driver speed. It also conducts an annual survey of hazardous walking conditions and partners with the police department in monitoring rail crossings and preventing stop arm runners.

With 95 mechanics and support personnel and three garage locations, the district keeps buses in top condition. Doing almost everything in-house saves the district money in the long run. For example, the garage staff recently rebuilt a bus that was destroyed by arson. “It cost us around $12,000 vs. outsourcing it at between $20,000 and $25,000,” says Billy Savage, fleet maintenance manager.


Rockdale School District
Conyers, Ga.

Fleet composition: 160 buses
Students transported daily: 13,000 to 14,000
Schools served: 20
Number of drivers: 136
Daily mileage: 8,000
Driver wages: $12.20 to $14.38 per hr.
Chuck Brasher, transportation director

When Chuck Brasher took over as transportation director at Rockdale School District, he restructured the department. Taking the suggestion of a supervisor, Brasher divided Rockdale’s 136 drivers into four groups based on the geographic areas they serve. Each cluster of drivers meets together and shares a common supervisor who understands the community his drivers serve.

“The driver that you see at the school is also working for the same supervisor you are,” explains Brasher. Previously, drivers for the district’s 17 schools and the three special-needs schools outside of the district were overseen by supervisors who may not have served in the same region.

Another change Brasher instituted was to divide the department’s four mechanics into two teams in charge of a specific share of Rockdale’s 160 buses and 40 district vehicles. The new structure, which Brasher says is a military concept, inspires mechanics to take ownership of the buses in their charge. “You’re not going to leave problems for the next guy, because the next guy is you,” says Brasher.

Assigning vehicles to maintenance teams, the idea of one of the district’s mechanics, has significantly reduced maintenance problems. “Service calls have all but disappeared over the last several school years and the safety record is outstanding,” says Brasher.

Though the driver shortage is one of Brasher’s major concerns, he started the school year with every route covered and two substitutes on staff. Recruitment efforts, such as advertising and driver referrals, bring some relief to the shortage, says Brasher. But the most effective way to keep routes covered is to provide attendance incentives. Drivers with three or fewer absences in a year receive a bonus, which varies annually. Not only does this improve attendance, but it also increases worker satisfaction. “The morale of the drivers is excellent, and absenteeism has diminished to the almost non-existent level,” he says.

Related Topics: Great Fleets

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