With a critical need for more school bus drivers, a New York district implemented these recruiting ideas with minimal investment but a sizable return in applicants.
Gomes School Bus Service LTD.
Fleet composition: 58 buses, 26 vans
Schools served: 20-plus
Students transported daily: 2,500
When you’re running school buses on a small outcropping in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, an effective preventive maintenance program is a necessity.
Gomes School Bus Service serves more than 20 public schools and several private schools on the island of Oahu, transporting some 2,500 students daily with 58 buses and 26 vans. It also provides island-wide charter service.
“A lack of preventive maintenance can be expensive,” says Bryan Gomes, a mechanic and driver for the company, which is owned and operated by Gomes family members David, Lee, Cheyenne and Bryan.
Gomes says the company follows a strict PM schedule for new and used buses. “After the first 3,000 miles, we bring buses in and grease them,” he says. “We also check the brakes, belts, fluids, frame rails, especially for cracks, tire pressure, tire tread and so forth. The only thing we don’t do is change the oil.”
Gomes explains that the oil and filter in the fleet’s engines are changed after 6,000 miles. For vehicles with automatic transmissions, oil is changed every 15,000 to 16,000 miles. The company stocks parts, including transmissions, filters, brakes, seat covers and tail pipes. Should a transmission break down, it can be replaced quickly, minimizing down time and the impact on students.
“We try to do it all,” Gomes says. “We sew worn seat covers, fix tires and paint our vehicles. We inspect the fleet, and we work weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Collectively, we have more than 20 years of experience.”
It helps that Gomes is both driver and mechanic. “We encourage interaction with our drivers in order to stay on top of potential problems or resolve existing problems,” he says. “I train our drivers, and we try to keep open communication lines with them, as well as with parents and the community. We work together as a team to maintain a high level of staff morale.”
Brown Bus Co.
Fleet composition: 150 buses
Students transported daily: 7,200
Schools served: 26
Number of drivers: 150
Service area: 3,600 square miles
Driver wages: $7.75 per hour to start; average: $10 per hour
Vern Carpenter, owner-manager
Nestled in Idaho’s Treasure Valley, Brown Bus Co. services a desert area surrounded by foothills on all sides. In addition to contracts with three school districts and one private school, the company provides charter services to church groups, local clubs and other community organizations.
The special-needs and preschool programs are growing rapidly in the districts Brown serves. For this reason, owner-manager Vern Carpenter has designated two lead drivers to oversee those areas — one for the special-needs population and the other for 3- to 5-year-olds. Those lead drivers develop routes, act as subs on routes and provide driver training on special-needs issues. “We’re always concerned about gaining more information on how to take care of our customers,” says Carpenter.
With the goal of better serving customers and supporting drivers, Carpenter takes a firm stance on student discipline. Each bus is equipped with a camera box, and video cameras are rotated among the fleet. When a driver writes up a student referral, that information is input into a computer program specially designed for Brown Bus. The program records and tracks referrals, allowing Carpenter to monitor behavior patterns of different student bodies. “It helps administrators know how their school is doing,” he says.
To further support drivers in maintaining order on the bus, Carpenter provides behavior management training and has recently hired someone with experience in police work and in management to act as the intermediary between transportation and school administration on student discipline issues. To prepare for that position, the new employee is working as a bus driver. “We want him to feel the same thing the drivers feel. We feel that’s very important in his training,” explains Carpenter.
Carpenter’s two sons have recently become his partners in the company. Each acts as operations manager at one of the company’s two facilities — Nampa, which employs six mechanics in a five-bay shop, and Valley View, which has four mechanics and a two-bay shop.
Paige Bus Enterprises
Fleet composition: 130 buses
Students transported daily: 700
Schools served: 40
Number of drivers: 130
Daily mileage: 3,000
Driver wages: $7.75 per hour to start; average: $10 per hour
Paige Bus Enterprises serves 40 schools, mostly within Chicago Public Schools, in addition to running special-needs transportation for six different school districts. “We have seen a large growth in the special-needs segment,” says Phillip Paige, whose father started the company in 1970. To meet the increasing demand, Paige purchases new buses that can serve both the regular and the special-needs populations. The fleet currently consists of 70 of these “combo vehicles,” which are full-size buses with wheelchair lifts and track seating.
As past president of the school board for one of the special-needs centers in his area, Paige takes a personal interest in the students his company transports — and he expects his drivers to do the same. To support them in their efforts, he recently purchased Parent-Teacher Organization memberships for a group of his drivers.
Paige Bus Enterprises has a policy that drivers must make eye-to-eye contact with parents of special-needs students before dropping them off at home. If a parent will not be there at drop-off, the company must be notified in writing. The Chicago Board of Education supports student transportation in its efforts and has set up an area for “undeliverable” children at a local park, where bus aides wait with students while their parents are tracked down. Programs like these give Paige the reputation of ‘the little company that’s big on service,’ says Paige.
Though his operation has grown to include 130 drivers, 50 aides, 10 mechanics and 12 office staff at two facilities, Paige has made a habit of personally interviewing every prospective driver. Not only does this enable him to “weed out” those who don’t make the grade, but it also makes new drivers feel welcome. In the same vein, Paige offers monthly safety awards, Christmas bonuses, back-to-school treats and a monthly “lunch with the boss” for two drivers who win a drawing. “Because of the family-type atmosphere, we haven’t had a noticeable [driver] shortage,” says Paige.
Monroe County Community School Corporation
Fleet facts: 104 corporation owned, 42 owner-operated buses
Students transported daily: 9,000
Schools served: 19
Michael J. Clark, transportation director
A fourth-generation bus driver, Cheryl Johnson values the close-knit atmosphere at Monroe County Community School Corporation (MCCSC), where she works with some of her family members. “We are a team. Everybody works together in spite of any differences,” says Johnson. The Johnsons are not the only family members working for MCCSC. Among the other clans is a family with seven MCCSC employees. Johnson credits this family atmosphere with softening the crunch of the driver shortage. “We ran our 1999-2000 school year without one route remaining open past the standard 3-day posting period. I believe it is because this is a great place to work,” she says.
The department serves 19 schools and transports 9,000 students daily. Michael J. Clark, director of transportation, says it takes a special type of teamwork to keep things running smoothly and he is always looking for additional ways to improve relationships. “We recently conducted a workshop with our drivers on effective ways of communicating with parents and teaching them how to build a positive rapport,” says Clark. The occasional need to relay negative information to a parent is received much better when coming from a friend, he says.
Driver training is done in-house and includes special-needs training for all drivers. Johnson says that this ensures a special-needs student will never have a driver or a monitor who has not been trained in securing wheelchairs, applying safety vests and other procedures. Johnson says the training program is well respected in the community. “I received my CDL after completing the training program at MCCSC. The staff at the testing site told me the MCCSC drivers were the best prepared that he had seen,” she says.
Drivers play an active role in the department’s organization. A driver-nominated committee of representatives assists in creating and implementing operating procedures, resolving conflicts and making interview selections for advancement. A social committee was recently formed to raise funds for various parties, activities and retirement celebrations through the sale of shirts and jackets imprinted with the “Team MCCSC” logo.
Johnston Community School District
Fleet composition: 42 buses
Students transported daily: 4,000
Schools served: 5
Number of drivers: 63
Operating budget: $1.1 million
Size of district: 40 square miles
Daily mileage: 2,000
Driver wages: $11.67 to $14.87 per hour
David Kramer, transportation director
One of the fastest-growing districts in Iowa, Johnston Community Schools has seen its enrollment nearly double over the past 10 years. However, the district continues to offer busing to the entire student population, which currently numbers 4,000. Transportation Director David Kramer welcomes the challenge of offering 100 percent busing to an ever-growing population, as he would rather hire employees than lay them off. “Increasing enrollment gives us problems, but it’s a great problem to have. I’m not at all envious of those districts that are declining,” he says.
With population growth comes construction. Last year, drivers had to deal with the reconstruction of one of the city’s main thoroughfares, which was widened to 10 lanes. “All of this growth and construction causes headaches, but our transportation department picks kids up and delivers them within a most acceptable time frame each year,” says Gary Busby, principal of Johnston Middle School.
To meet the demands of 100 percent busing without breaking the budget, Kramer searches for the best deals on new and used buses and has started staggering school start times. In doing so, Kramer says he can do double the work with half the people. “Our transportation cost per pupil is the lowest in Polk County and one of the lowest in the state. This is done without compromising student safety in any way,” says Duane Van Gorp, executive director of business services.
Since all students are eligible for busing, the population of students being transported can vary greatly from day to day. This can make for some behavior management challenges. To combat these problems, Kramer makes sure to properly screen and train his drivers. He offers a mentoring program in which senior drivers answer questions for new hires and act as “surrogate parents.” He and his drivers also go into the schools to talk to students, setting down expectations and answering questions. “Last year we targeted some disruptive behavior on the bus and there was an immediate decline in that behavior,” says Kramer.
School Services & Leasing
Fleet composition: 494 buses
Students transported daily: 21,000
Schools served: 107
Operating budget: $13 million
Driver wages: $8.50 to $10.50 per hour
Dave Schultz, regional manager
The death of one of its drivers — killed last spring when a pipe broke loose from a plumber’s truck and crashed through the bus’ windshield — still resonates at School Services & Leasing’s Wichita terminal. “It isn’t the same place,” concedes Dave Schultz, the regional manager. “But I like the fact that we’ve rededicated ourselves to safety. We’re trying not to let her death be in vain.”
Safety is a key consideration when you’re running nearly 500 buses daily to transport close to 21,000 children for Wichita Public Schools. Schultz says his company, which recently was acquired by National Express Corp., ensures that its drivers are prepared for the task by putting them through an extensive training program. Using nine full-time safety and training personnel, the company requires its recruits to undergo 20 hours of classroom training and 20 hours of behind-the-wheel training, far exceeding state requirements.
Although one of three recruits doesn’t make it to the final bell, Schultz is happy with the quality of the drivers who do make it through the process. Proper screening helps to minimize the dropout rate. “We try to recruit people who will fit into this lifestyle,” he says, adding that the best prospects are retirees and housewives.
Schultz, who has been working at the Wichita terminal for four years, says the employees deserve credit for the overall success of the operation, which recently had its contract renewed by Wichita Public Schools for four years. “The local staff is incredible,” he says. “They have dedication to making sure the job is done right. Their commitment to the kids is what makes the difference.”
It also helps to have a fleet of buses with an average age of 2 years. Not only are the buses equipped with the latest safety equipment and ergonomic improvements, they also need fewer repairs and require less downtime than older vehicles. “That frees our mechanics to focus on the items that might affect safety and reliability,” Schultz says. “And, at the end of the day, this job is about making sure that kids get home safely.”
Woodford County School District
Fleet composition: 50 buses
Students transported daily: 3,000
Schools served: 7
Number of drivers: 59
Operating budget: $1.2 million
Size of district: 196 square miles
Daily mileage: 2,600
Driver wages: $8.96 to $13 per hour; average: $10 per hour
Bobby Gaffney, transportation director
The transportation department at Woodford County School District has not suffered a driver shortage in nine years. “Because of the way we hire our drivers, we have little to no turnover,” says Bobby Gaffney, director of transportation. He keeps about 11 relief drivers on staff at all times, giving them full pay and benefits. Recruitment is made easier by Gaffney’s program of immediate paid training upon hire. “If you come to me to drive a bus today, I’ll have you training tomorrow,” explains Gaffney, who says that new drivers are trained one on one.
Woodford’s 59 drivers and 8 aides receive 20 hours of training before the opening of school each year — almost three times the state-mandated amount. On the first day of school, the drivers of kindergarten routes take the buses to the schools where the young riders get introduced to the bus. Because many parents drive their kindergarten children to school the first day, they often don’t know which bus to get on in the afternoon. This orientation helps clear up that problem. To further assist these new riders, buses are each adorned with animal emblems correlating to animal stickers worn by the kindergartners.
Woodford’s program is highly computerized. Routing, fuel, payroll and student referral forms are all managed with computer software. Next summer Gaffney hopes to pilot test a new program that will allow him to see and hear what is occurring on each bus via his computer. “What I want to do is to be able to sit in my office, look at my computer and bring up a picture of any bus going down the road,” says Gaffney, who would use the program to monitor routes and provide assistance to drivers. He currently has the technology to bring the picture to him, but is waiting for a company to develop the technology to link the sound. A program such as this would currently run about $4,000 a bus, but Gaffney expects the price to go down over time.
Webster Parish School Board
Fleet composition: 106 buses
Students transported daily: 5,800
Schools served: 22
Number of drivers: 133
Driver wages: $11,360 annually
W.R. “Buster” Flowers, supervisor of transportation and school security
Speed and efficiency of emergency response are particular concerns for school bus drivers at the Webster Parish School Board, which services small towns and rural areas. W.R. “Buster” Flowers, supervisor of transportation and school security, says that only about four members of the all-volunteer fire department are trained in extrication — an important skill in the case of an emergency school bus evacuation.
To combat the shortage of experienced help in the emergency response system, Flowers focuses on real-world training. He recently organized a mock school bus/train collision as an exercise for bus drivers and public safety units. Working in conjunction with the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission and Operation Lifesaver, the staged event was filmed by transportation officials, who later analyzed the exercise and addressed potential response problems.
The district’s safety program also includes a review board made up of bus drivers who analyze all accidents and makes recommendations for remedial training. Additionally, each driver is required to attend eight hours of training in excess of state requirements. Since stepping up its driver-training program, Webster Parish has decreased school bus accidents by 75 percent.
Addressing a constant and growing student behavior problem, Flowers says that the district’s assertive discipline plan teaches drivers to be assertive without being argumentative. “You have rules and then you have consequences for breaking those rules,” explains Flowers. “Everybody knows if you break the rule twice, you’re going to have to follow this certain circumstance.” Parents are contacted first when a student misbehaves. If that brings no results, the school principal is contacted and the issue is handled through disciplinary channels.
As chairman of the Louisiana Transportation Improvement Committee, which consists of school bus transportation officials and the highway safety commission, Flowers keeps his operation focused on improving school bus transportation in all of Louisiana. “I’m working with them on public awareness,” says Flowers, adding that the entire staff of Webster Parish participates in local community events to promote school bus safety.
Maine School Administrative District #27
Fort Kent, Maine
Fleet composition: 21 buses
Students transported daily: 1,319
Schools served: 5
Number of drivers: 18
Annual mileage: 245,000
Driver wages: Part-time: $10.60 per hour; full-time: $9.20 per hour
Peter Saucier, transportation director
With a staff of 18 drivers, one mechanic and one transportation director, almost everyone at Maine School Administrative District #27 wears more than one hat. Director Peter Saucier does the routing, works dispatch and runs the transportation office in addition to ordering custodial supplies for the district. Eleven of his drivers double as custodians for the district. They bring their buses home in the afternoon and pick students up on their way into work each morning.
Students in these small rural communities are bused according to where they live rather than where they attend school. “We’ve got pre-kindergarten to seniors on the same buses,” explains Saucier. This can make for challenges in student management. Emergency evacuations, too, can be difficult with students of varying ages. Saucier recently purchased a safety training tape to focus on this area and says he’s seen marked improvement as a result. “I saw a complete turnaround,” he says. With training, drivers learned to get their students to work together, with older students helping the little ones to exit the bus through the back door.
Before Saucier came to the district seven years ago, drivers were not getting annual training. They now receive 20 hours of training a year, which he says the majority of drivers enjoy. “If you’re interested enough to look at them as professionals, they appreciate it,” he says.
The biggest change Saucier has made since coming to the district is in improving employee morale. He throws his staff an annual summer picnic at his house, paid for in part by a departmental recycling program and in part by his own personal funds. “I think that by enjoying being with them, I’ve changed the atmosphere,” says Saucier.
When drivers are working a late-night activity trip, he’ll often contact them by radio from home just to say hello. “We travel clear down the coast to compete — 300 to 350 miles away. When you’re that far away, it feels good to hear from home,” he says.
Washington County Schools
Fleet composition: 114 county-owned buses, 64 contractor-owned
Students transported daily: 15,000
Schools served: 49
Number of drivers: 240 county drivers
Annual mileage: 2.2 million
Driver wages: $9.95 to $11.80 per hour
Of the 178 buses serving Washington County Schools, 114 are operated by the county school district and 64 are contractor-run. “We set the schedule, develop the routes and pre-service and in-service train them,” Transportation Director Christopher Carter says of the district’s 41 contractors. “We pay the contractors a driver’s salary and that salary is negotiated between the contractor and the driver,” he says, adding that a large majority of the county’s contractors are owner-operators.
Though the county operation costs the district less than the contracted services, geographical considerations make contracting beneficial. “The majority of our county buses serve the greater metropolitan area with the greatest population density, and our contractors typically serve the outlying areas where the population is smaller and we don’t have depots and fueling areas,” explains Carter. Contractors usually transport students who live in their neighborhoods, which are often far away from the city. It would cost the district a lot of money to send a county bus out there and back. Though working with so many different contractors may seem unmanageable, Carter says he prefers to work with small contractors and actually limits the number of buses a contractor may have to three. “It gives a little more personalized attention when a contractor has a limited number of buses to deal with,” says Carter.
One of Washington County’s most recent accomplishments came through a restructuring of the accident review process. With a post-accident review committee made up of a driver instructor, a contractor representative, a county representative and a transportation specialist, the district has made a habit of analyzing every accident and determining preventability. In addition, the county has implemented a retraining program for anyone who has a preventable accident.
In the area of student discipline, Carter set up a committee of bus drivers, office staff and principals to establish a county-wide discipline system to be adopted by the school board. “Prior to last year, it was kind of a school-by-school procedure. We felt it was important to get consistency county-wide,” says Carter.
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