Great Fleets Across America, Part IV

Posted on October 1, 2000

Boone Transportation Inc.
Gadsden, N.M.

Fleet composition: 117
Students transported: 9,600
Schools served: 17
Average driver wages: $10.40 per hour
Employees: 115 drivers and assistants, 21 full-time office and shop staff
Founded: 1952
Ralph and Betty Boone, owners
Randy and Jamey Boone and Christie Stuart, vice presidents

Boone Transportation is a family affair in more ways than one. Not only is it operated by two sons and the daughter of founder Ralph Boone, it also has strong family ties to the community. “We are now transporting grandchildren of our first students,” says Cristie Stuart, vice president and daughter of Ralph Boone. “And many of our drivers and full-time staff were at one time students who rode our buses to and from school.”

This generational connection to the community is important. Boone Transportation provides more than transportation to the Gadsden Independent School District. It also returns approximately $60,000 in the form of free field trips and donations to various groups and schools. In addition, $30,000 is donated as scholarships to graduating seniors from each of Gadsden’s two high schools.

Philanthropy aside, the company has an impressive training program for its 115 drivers and assistants. Before they are eligible to drive, recruits undergo an average of 55 hours of pre-service training, well beyond the state-mandated 40 hours. It also provides drivers and assistants with eight hours of in-service training each year and requires them to maintain First Aid/ CPR certification.

To improve communication and encourage safety , Boone Transportation created a Communications Committee with employee-elected representatives. Stuart says the committee, which meets monthly, helps to foster goodwill and encourage innovation. It deserves some credit for the company’s high retention rate: 50 percent of the drivers have been employed for more than five years and 35 percent have been employed for 15 years or more.

Stuart says the fleet of 117 buses is relatively young, with an average age of 6 years. All maintenance is tracked by computer. Stuart says preventive maintenance is the major goal, especially since the fleet travels over 2 million miles each year.


Maine-Endwell School District
Maine, N.Y.

Fleet composition: 48 buses
Students transported: 2,500
Schools served: 25
Operations budget: $1.4 million
Average driver wages: $10.75 hour
Douglas R. Jensen, transportation supervisor

Providing employees with a supportive, empowering environment has helped Maine-Endwell’s transportation program undergo a major transformation.

Douglas Jensen, transportation supervisor, says the bus yard was gloomy when he took over last November. “Morale had hit rock bottom,” he says. Contributing to this dissatisfaction was a driver shortage that forced office staff and mechanics to drive every day. “The entire complex was often left empty during bus run times,” Jensen says. Because the mechanics were often driving instead of servicing buses, fleet maintenance was substandard.

Jensen addressed the morale problem by collaborating with employees on a list of mutual expectations — such as forgiveness, learning and respect. He also formed a group called the Transportation Leadership Team, which comprised drivers, garage staff and himself. This group tackled projects such as modernizing equipment and updating the employee handbook, which hadn’t been revised since the early 1980s.

Jensen says he also empowered drivers to contact parents if there were problems with their children on the bus. “Previously, our drivers were not allowed to communicate with parents,” he says. “I removed that obstacle. Ninety-nine percent of drivers are capable of removing problems on their own.”

Allowing the employees to have ownership of the program brought changes in physical and mental states. “Attendance began to climb, and drivers offered to go the extra mile, without complaint,” Jensen says. Through a concerted effort, he was able to hire enough drivers to comfortably cover daily routes.

There were other benefits. Jensen says a group of drivers has taken over concession sales in the bus yard to help raise money for college scholarships for district students. Also on the drawing board is the acquisition and renovation of a vehicle into a safety demonstration bus. “They also want to be involved in next year’s school bus purchase recommendations,” Jensen says.

Looking back, Jensen admits the transformation was not easy. “There was resistance at first,” he says. Many employees were reluctant to embrace new ideas and concepts. “It was fear,” he says. “These people went from a very controlled state to an employee-empowered state.”


Duplin County Schools
Kenansville, N.C.

Fleet composition: 126 buses
Schools served: 15
Students transported daily: 5,100
Driver wages: $9.08 to $11.56 per hour
Sammy Boone, transportation director

During the 1999-2000 school year, the transportation program at Duplin County Schools faced a monumental challenge in simply resuming its operations. A series of September storms had ravaged the county, leaving 64 roads flooded or damaged. Some school sites even served as temporary shelters for flood victims.

“During the flood, the garage staff spent extra hours just trying to get back moving again,” recalls Sammy Boone, transportation director. Working closely with emergency management, the Department of Transportation and highway officials, buses were rolling 16 days after school operations were suspended. In view of the storms’ devastating effects, the relatively swift resumption of bus service was a tribute to the staff’s commitment.

“Everybody takes pride in their work here,” Boone says. “They realize they’re transporting the most precious cargo.”

The department buses about 5,100 students to 15 school sites. Last year, North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction awarded Duplin County the best bus inspection rating in eastern North Carolina. The state’s mandated bus maintenance program includes an inspection performed every 30 days. Additional preventive maintenance inspections are also conducted at established mileage intervals.

“We have four route mechanics and they touch every bus, every day that it’s located at school,” Boone says. “Our two shop technicians touch all the spare buses that are used when one of the regular buses is in the shop. They do a good, thorough examination of these buses. When a bus is assigned to a technician, he takes pride in ensuring that it’s up to snuff.”

Each year, the department hosts a bus driver safety meeting that features videos on bus stop and railroad crossing safety. Bus drivers are encouraged to express their concerns and ask any questions. The event also honors an exceptional bus driver with the Tracy Lea Calhoun Award, named in memory of a 17-year-old girl who lost her life when a school bus ran a stop sign.

“Our primary targets, of course, are safety and efficiency,” Boone says. “When pressed to accomplish both of these, they begin to battle one another. When they do, safety is the victor at Duplin County Schools.”


Minot Public Schools
Minot, N.D.

Fleet composition: 30 buses
Schools served: 19
Students transported daily: 900
Driver wages: $9.79 to $11.91 per hour
Barry Brooks, transportation director

With a driver turnover rate less than 1 percent, the transportation program at Minot Public Schools must be doing something right to keep driver morale high. “I guess it’s the work ethic up here,” says Barry Brooks, transportation director. “The drivers and aides we have just love these kids. They even personalize the buses. When you walk on one of our buses, you see pictures of every one of the kids they haul. The drivers know the children by name. It’s really impressive to watch how our drivers are with these kids.”

Drivers also decorate their buses for holidays like Valentine’s Day and dress in costume for Halloween. The emphasis on fun scores points with the kids and creates a more enjoyable working environment.

Employing 30 to 35 bus drivers, the department transports 900 students each school day. All but two of the drivers are part-time employees. The district includes 13 elementary schools, three high schools and three middle schools.

There are two staff technicians, both of whom are ASE-certified. Recently, the department expanded its pre-trip inspection checklist from about 10 items to nearly 60 items. Maintenance inspections are especially stringent during winter months, when cold temperatures can take their toll on such equipment as tires and windshield wipers. Recently, the district replaced all of its pre-1977 buses with new and more recent models. All buses are equipped with strobe lights and a radio. This year, each bus in the fleet will also get an emergency cell phone that’s capable of dialing 911 only.

Each year, the Minot district hosts the state-mandated driver-training seminar for Ward County. In addition to meeting state requirements for driver training (four hours annually), Minot school bus drivers receive training on such subjects as CPR, asthma treatment, crisis prevention, the Heimlich maneuver, what to do when a student suffers a seizure and how to operate a fire extinguisher.

“It’s the hard work, dedication to service and professionalism of the men and women of the Minot Public School’s transportation department that make our fleet a great fleet,” Brooks says.


Lucas County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities
Toledo, Ohio

Fleet composition: 55 buses/40 auxiliary vehicles
Clients transported: 900
Schools served: 8
Operations budget: $5 million
Driver wages: $12.67 to $13.98 per hour
Ray Wilson, transportation director

With a fleet of 55 school buses, the Lucas County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities provides mentally retarded adults with many of the same opportunities that non-disabled people enjoy.

The buses transport the board’s 900 clients, including 250 in wheelchairs, to work sites as well as training and vocational centers. Although this population is 18 and older, they still exhibit a range of challenging behavioral problems. “I probably read 20 incident reports a day,” says Transportation Director Ray Wilson. “Most of them are fairly minor, but we document everything.”

Wilson says his drivers are closely screened before hiring and then extensively trained. The pre-service training includes a 30-hour orientation on the special needs of the clients. Another eight to 16 hours is required for transportation responsibilities. “Other school systems call us to train their people,” he says.

The best drivers, Wilson says, are calm and people-oriented. “They need to interact with parents, group homes and the clients themselves,” he explains. “I don’t think if you’re a high-strung, uptight individual that you would last too long in this environment.”

It helps that the fleet of 55 buses is kept in excellent shape. Wilson says the buses travel more than 1 million miles per year and have not had a failure during inspections by the Ohio State Highway Patrol for 13 years.

The key to the transportation program’s success has been flexibility. “Transportation can become very black and white,” Wilson explains. “We just want to make sure that we take care of the people.” As an example, he recently requested and received $80,000 to provide more leisure and recreational trips during evenings and weekends. This allows the clients to attend baseball games and movies or just go to the grocery store. “The average person with mental retardation has his life dictated to him,” says Wilson. “We’re trying to open up more opportunities.”


Mid-Del Schools
Midwest City, Okla.

Fleet composition: 100 buses
Students transported daily: 7,000
Schools served: 27
Operations budget: $2.5 million
Average driver wages: $10 per hour
John Linville, transportation director

As a former adult-education teacher, John Linville believes in continuing education. That might explain why the 100-plus drivers at Mid-Del Schools in suburban Oklahoma City are among the most highly trained in the state. Not surprisingly, the district has one of the lowest accident rates in Oklahoma. “Our accident rate is close to nil,” Linville says. “We have very, very few at-fault accidents.”

Linville, Mid-Del’s transportation director for the past eight years, says his troops are well prepared for any circumstance. Each month, the drivers attend a safety training session on topics such as handling blood-borne pathogens, defensive driving, avoiding slips and falls and using a fire extinguisher. Before the start of school, he also “refreshes” returning drivers with a five-hour session that includes piloting the bus on a road course. “That way there are no surprises on the first day of school,” he says.

After each safety meeting, the drivers hold a potluck dinner. Linville says these meals help to keep morale high. The atmosphere at his compound is relaxed. He allows the drivers to play dominoes and pinochle between routes, and there’s a TV in the drivers lounge. “I like for them to stick around when they’re not out driving,” he says.

Linville says safety is his main concern, but he’s also interested in running a tight ship. To minimize fuel costs, he revamped several routes and put middle and high school students on the same buses, something he previously avoided. “It seems to be working so far,” he says. If it’s successful, this new routing system will curtail deadhead mileage and save 40,000 to 50,000 gallons of fuel this year.

Linville believes in a systematic approach. Forms, properly filled out, help to keep the system running efficiently. And he never forgets transportation’s place within the big picture. “We’re a support service,” he says. “We’re not here to teach the kids; we’re here to help the people who teach the kids. We make ourselves available and ready to do whatever we can.”


Centennial School District
Portland, Ore.

Fleet composition: 38 buses
Students transported daily: 3,700
Schools served: 8
Starting driver wages: $10.75 per hour
Operating budget: $1 million
Mabel Moist, transportation director

Peals of laughter at 6:00 in the morning? Yes, that’s what Mabel Moist, transportation director, hears in the drivers’ lounge before the start of the school day at Centennial School District in suburban Portland. “Everybody’s light-hearted and positive,” she says. “That’s the best part of this job: the people.”

Morale is high, Moist says, because the drivers are comfortable in their positions and support one another. “Drivers are quick to help each other if a student misses the bus, a bus breaks down or is late for a reason beyond the driver’s control,” she says. For personal support, the department has a “Sunshine Committee,” which aids drivers who may be facing difficult times. “The teamwork and support that happens in this building warms the heart,” Moist says.

The drivers credit Moist for the high morale. “She has created a fun, caring, family atmosphere for us to work in,” they wrote in a nomination letter. “We are always welcome at her door for problems both personal and professional. Mabel often greets each of us in the morning with hugs or candy kisses and in the hot afternoons, when we return from our routes, with ice cream.”

But there’s more to the Centennial transportation program than cheerful demeanors. Its maintenance program is one of the finest in Oregon, and the fleet recently passed state inspection without a single failure. Moist commends technician Garry Grimm, a former truck driver “who knows how important it is for bus drivers to have a comfortable bus that runs smoothly and safely.”

Moist says it’s not uncommon for Grimm to work 12 to 14 hours a day so drivers can pilot their own buses instead of spares. In the morning, he can be counted on to “add oil, change lights and help with those little things that need to be done,” Moist says. “He is there to help wash a window or scrape a window in the cold. He is the backbone of our operation. Without him, we wouldn’t move.”


Wissahickon School District
Blue Bell, Pa.

Fleet composition: 72 buses
Students transported daily: 5,800
Schools served: 120
Average driver wages: $14.40 per hour
Leona Flood, transportation director

Leona Flood will likely delay her retirement in two years because she’s enjoying her work too much. As transportation director of a 72-bus fleet in Blue Bell, about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the 63-year-old former bus driver says she’s surrounded by great people and works for a great school district. “I think about how lucky I am,” Flood says.

Flood has spent 41 years in transportation at the school district. She started as a driver to help defray expenses while working toward a college degree in biology. Through a series of promotions, she eventually was named transportation director in 1980.

Change, especially on the regulatory side, has been plentiful in the past 20 years, but Flood believes most of it has been positive. “I think we get better and better and safer and safer,” she says. Through effective driver training, even the behavior of students seems to be improving. “Everyone says it’s getting worse, but for us it seems to be getting better.”

Flood credits her staff with creating a positive environment. “They are there for each other,” she says, “and that helps to make this a nice place to work.” To keep morale high, a department newsletter is distributed every Thursday, listing safety tips, birthdays and assignments for the coming week. The drivers also publish their own newsletter, which comes out quarterly.

Drivers and monitors contribute time and energy to the Safety Committee, which meets monthly. Flood says the committee is more than just window dressing. It has pushed through safety improvements as well as helped to recognize exemplary drivers. For example, the committee rewarded a driver who had completed 30 years without an accident by giving him a reserved parking spot for his bus, right next to the entrance.

Flood says her department maintains solid relations with parents by being friendly — and by listening. “Sometimes all they need is for you to listen to their complaints,” she says. “Then we try to resolve the situation.” Flood notes that her toughest challenge is surviving the opening of school each year. “If you can just make it through the first two weeks, you’ve got it made,” she says.


North Kingstown School Department
North Kingstown, R.I.

Fleet composition: 43 buses
Students transported daily: 3,500
Schools served: 3,500
Operations budget: $2 million
Walter Kettelle, transportation director

North Kingstown operates a split transportation program, with the regular-education buses owned and operated by town residents and special-ed buses owned by the school department and driven by its employees. Walter Kettelle, transportation director, thinks this system works wonderfully well in meeting the needs of the community.

For one, the driver-owners must live in North Kingstown and thus are familiar with many of the students and their families. Because drivers generally live in the neighborhoods they service and keep their buses at home, route mileage is minimized. Owner-operators perform their own maintenance and must file weekly reports.

Kettelle says this split system has helped to reduce turnover. The average driver has spent 10 to 15 years with the district. Hiring only locals to drive the regular-ed routes seems to help morale. “They’re fabulous about helping one another,” he says. “It’s a very strong team effort.”

What also helps in keeping morale high is the state’s requirement of having monitors on all buses transporting children in grades K-5. These monitors help with maintaining discipline and safety on buses. The only problem, Kettelle says, is that it’s tough to find and keep monitors. They’re paid $12 per shift — morning, kindergarten or afternoon. “We’ve looked at seniors and the older high school students, but we’re still having problems finding people to do it.”

Customer service is a critical area of concern at North Kingstown. Few students are forced to walk to school, even those living within the walking distance. “If we can provide the service, we do it,” Kettelle says. In addition, most kindergartners receive curb-to-school service.

Kettelle also accommodates families with two working parents by being flexible with routing. “We’ll pick up a student anywhere and drop them off anywhere, as long as it’s on a Monday-through-Friday basis,” he says. The increased use of after-school childcare services provides his biggest challenge. “It’s a difficult adjustment, but we’ve got to make it,” he says.


School District of Greenville County
Taylors, S.C.

Fleet composition: 302 buses
Students transported daily: 26,000
Schools served: 104
Driver wages: $8.06 to $10.69 per hour
Service area: 850 square miles
Skip Fredricksen, transportation director

With 850 square miles of rural, urban, suburban and mountainous areas, the School District of Greenville County faces natural and man-made challenges to its transportation program. The department operates more than 300 buses and transports 26,000 students. The average daily ridership exceeds 115 students per bus, which makes it one of the most efficient in the state.

Transportation Director Skip Fredricksen says a team approach — including a competition among groups of drivers to encourage accident-free driving — has helped to inspire a decline in at-fault accidents for the past four years. “The transportation department is especially proud of its improving safety record,” Fredricksen says.

The competition pits teams of 30 to 44 drivers against one another. The team with the lowest percentage of accidents per miles driven is declared the winner. Updates of the year-long competition are issued every two weeks. Winners receive gift certificates for a family meal and a safe-driving pin. In addition, a plaque commemorating the winning team is hung on the superintendent’s wall.

Also contributing to the decline in accidents, Fredricksen says, is the district’s extensive driver training program. Every bus driver is required to attend one two-hour safety training class per month. The courses are taught by two safety specialists employed by the district.

Greater success in recruiting drivers has helped to buoy spirits this year. Fredricksen says the district was 17 drivers short at the start of last year. This year the shortage is down to three drivers. “The difference is night and day,” he says. “We can’t get over how smoothly school started this year. The parent calls have been way down. When you have the assets to do the job properly, it helps immensely.”

Morale among drivers is high, according to recent surveys. A majority of drivers find the pay satisfactory and feel they get enough work hours. Between 80 and 90 percent said they were satisfied with their jobs overall and cited management accessibility and overall management as being excellent.


School Bus Inc.
Sioux Falls, S.D.

Fleet composition: 73 buses
Students transported daily: 9,000
Schools served: 37
Driver wages: $9.25 to $10.25 per hour
Founded: 1962
Jim Shafer, general manager

The partnership between Sioux Falls School District and School Bus Inc. — client and contractor — helps to keep transportation costs down and maximizes efficiency without sacrificing customer service or safety.

School Bus Inc. operates a fleet of 73 buses and transports approximately 9,000 students daily for 37 public and private schools in Sioux Falls. It has held the Sioux Falls School District contract since 1979 and has built a mutually beneficial relationship.

“We view them as partners, and I think they feel the same way,” says Jim Shafer, general manager for School Bus. “We have an excellent working relationship.”

Bill Smith, the district’s transportation liaison, says School Bus has worked closely with the district to meet challenges involving busing of special-needs students, legislative inequities and state funding restrictions.

“They’re doing right by us in lean times,” Smith says, referring to the limits placed on state educational funding. Rather than insist on unrealistic rate hikes, School Bus has accepted increases tied to funding increases. “They’ve tightened their belt as our partner in a tough time,” he adds.

Shafer says his company constantly searches for ways to improve efficiency but adds, “We think we’re doing about everything we possibly can.” Routes are constantly examined for possible cuts or consolidations. But never at the expense of safety.

“They don’t cut corners,” says Smith. “They do right by the students and the school district.” Shafer says the greatest challenge he faces is having enough drivers to cover the routes. He says he’s hired — and lost — 60 drivers each of the past three years. Salary has not been the key issue. “Not one of them mentioned salary,” he says. The most common reason for driver turnover is that the company can’t offer a 40-hour work week or benefits. His drivers average 25 hours a week.

The importance of their jobs isn’t diminished by its part-time nature. “I tell our drivers, ‘Even though you don’t see it, you’re making a tremendous difference in the lives of these kids,’” Shafer says. “This is my 21st year, and I know that our drivers do have an effect on their students.”

Related Topics: Great Fleets

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