Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
The conditions school bus operators face vary greatly from province to province, but one thing remains consistent — a focus on training in order to provide safe and efficient transportation. Some operators use computer technology in every facet of their operation. Others have yet to install radios on all of their buses. Most operators contend with climate and terrain conditions that tax their fleets and challenge their drivers. Here's how operators in eight provinces rise to the demands of the pupil transportation industry.
Peace Wapiti Regional Division 33
Grande Prairie, Alberta
Fleet size: 168 buses
Students transported: 6,000
Schools served: 37
Number of drivers: 132
Garage staff: 9
Territory covered: 9,300 square kilometers
Roland LaCroix, director of transportation
Danny Patterson, assistant director of transportation
Peace Wapiti is the third-largest rural transportation system in Alberta, covering 9,300 square kilometers of territory. With shops in Grande Prairie, Rycroft and Ridgevalley, the school division maintains all of its 168 buses in-house. "We like being in control of our own transportation system," explains Danny Patterson, assistant director of transportation. "When we maintain buses on our own, we know they are safe. In fact, we have one of the best safety ratings in the province."
The transportation department also boasts a low employee turnover rate. Patterson and Transportation Director Roland LaCroix attribute the low turnover rate to a combination of factors -- the rural location of its operations, good wages and benefits and well-maintained equipment.
New-hires for the school board participate in a 16-hour "S (school bus) endorsement" safety program, a province-required classroom and behind-the-wheel driver training program. Peace Wapiti has in-house trainers approved to provide S-endorsement training, which includes everything from defensive driving to first aid training. Wages at Peace Wapiti are above average for the region, and a full benefit package is offered to employees.
This fall's schedule poses some challenges for the school district. The first high school within the city of Grand Prairie is opening, which will require some adjustment. The transportation department is also looking into purchasing its own office and shop and moving from the space is currently leases from the county. LaCroix and Patterson say they are well prepared for the changes to come.
Lynch Bus Lines
Fleet size: 90 buses
Students transported: Over 2,000
School districts served: 7
Number of drivers: 50-70
Garage staff: 3
Tom Lynch, owner
Operating in an area that spans from Vancouver Island to midland British Columbia, Lynch Bus Lines serves seven school districts and transports thousands of students daily. For 16 years, the company has been one of the dominant contractors in the central and southwestern part of the province, servicing the major school districts in Vancouver, Princeton, Burnaby and Victoria.
The company has built a reputation for having well-trained drivers and mechanics. "It's more name than anything. We have been around awhile, and when we say there is a pickup time, we show up promptly," explains office manager Wanda Sall.
Despite the industry's driver shortage, Lynch Bus Lines conducts a thorough pre-employment screening on every potential hire. Driver candidates must first supply the company with a current driver's abstract before completing an employment application. They then undergo a road examination with a safety officer, during which their performance is evaluated for several hours. If they pass the behind-the-wheel test, a criminal background check is run, and they are put on a bus with a senior officer. They remain there for a few days to get experience interacting with students and dealing with different stress levels.
Drivers at Lynch Bus Lines also contend with challenging climate and terrain. Year-round rain, ocean winds, heavy winter snowfall and mountain driving all contribute to wear and tear on the buses and their drivers. Because of these sometime harsh elements, Lynch is constantly working to meet high standards for bus and equipment conditions. The buses are serviced in between every mountain trip and the brakes are replaced frequently.
River East School Division No. 9
Fleet size: 50 buses
Students transported: 2,750
Schools served: 29
Number of drivers: 42 and 7 alternates
Garage staff: 3
Average driver wage: $15.49 per hour
Alex Novak, director of transportation
Of the 54 school divisions in the province of Manitoba, the River East School Division is one of the more unusual due to the diverse area it covers. Located in the greater Winnipeg area, the district's fleet transports students in urban, suburban and even slightly rural areas. Although the territory is primarily made up of flat plains, the winters are harsh, with temperatures dropping as low as 30 degrees below zero. Conversely, the summer heat can reach nearly 100 degrees. These extreme fluctuations in weather cause significant wear and tear to the division's buses.
The division's fleet consists of a combination of gasoline-powered and diesel-powered buses. Gasoline buses are serviced every 4,000 kilometers, while diesel buses are inspected about every 5,000 kilometers. Mandatory oil changes are performed on a more frequent basis. These maintenance practices typically give buses a 15-year life span, going about 300,000 kilometers before they're retired.
Not surprisingly, student behavior is one of the main issues on the minds of operators at the River East School Division. "Our biggest challenge is dealing with students on the bus. It starts with the drivers, but always comes down to the supervisors," says Alex Novak, the division's director of transportation. As is the practice at most U.S. school districts, drivers at River East use referral forms to report student misconduct. In addition, drivers get support from para-professionals who ride along on routes and act as monitors.
School Districts 10, 12, 13
Woodstock, New Brunswick
Fleet size: 140 buses
Students transported: 10,000
District size: 210 kilometers from end to end
Budget: $5.5 million a year
Wayne Dickinson, transportation manager
Serving a large, mostly rural territory in the Appalachian chain, the transportation department at School Districts 10, 12 and 13 deals with considerable variations in climate from one portion of the district to another. "You've got your highlands and your lowlands. You could have freezing rain or snow in one area and nothing in another," explains Wayne Dickinson, transportation manager. In addition, the area the district covers is sparsely populated, so it takes a lot of buses to accommodate all of the districts' riders.
Despite the challenges they face, Dickinson says his drivers have positive attitudes and go above and beyond the call of duty. A group of his drivers volunteer to work as trainers, putting in extensive hours beyond their driving time, for no pay. These drivers have developed two programs central to the operation's philosophy. One is the "selection and training" program, which involves screening prospective employees for compatibility with the position and teaching them to improve the skills required of them on the job.
The second program, called "frameworks for bus drivers," involves employee development in four main areas -- knowledge, communication, performance and growth. Currently, the program is being used to help supply (substitute) drivers improve their skills in order to gain a place on the permanent workforce. "Over the past 10 years, it's been kind of my passion to improve the quality of service to the kids, parents and schools," explains Dickinson. Programs such as these, says Dickinson, boost employee morale and help to recruit new drivers. Once hired, the key to retaining drivers is making sure they get enough work to make it worth their while to stay, says Dickinson. "You have to keep the numbers small enough so that you don't have large numbers of people who don't have anything to do," he says.
District vehicles are maintained by a joint effort of the Department of Transportation and the Department of Education. Maintenance services and equipment fees are paid to the province by the district. Dickinson says this process became particularly effective when the districts in the province began to merge and expand. This year, in fact, the three districts Dickinson oversees will merge into one 10,000-student district.
Stock Transportation Ltd.
Fleet size: 2,209 buses
Districts served: 25
Number of drivers: 2,300
Garage staff: 47
Territory: Ontario, Nova Scotia, N.Y., Texas, Mo.
Barry G. Stock, senior vice president
Under the direction of Barry Stock, senior vice president, Stock Transportation is a family company with a strong heritage. In 1958, Barry's uncle and father started the first of the family's school bus companies. In the 1980s, Barry's brothers Brian and Dan opened their own bus company, and Barry and his brother Greg soon followed suit. In the early 1990s, the three separate family companies were merged into one -- Stock Transportation Ltd.
With operations in three U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, managing the show at Stock Transportation is no easy task. The key to keeping things running smoothly, says Barry, is to hire good people and train them well. Special-education drivers receive 90 hours of training over the first year of employment and regular-education drivers receive 80 hours. "The key to retention is providing them [drivers] with training over the course of the year, instead of throwing all this new information at them at once," says Barry. New drivers are also matched with a mentor, who provides orientation and guidance.
Stock runs several programs to boost employee morale and improve the working environment. There are social committees and driver committees, an annual safety awards ceremony and extra-mile and bus bucks programs that earn employees company "money" that they can spend on events or company paraphernalia.
Stock has a fleet of 2,100 vehicles, 60 percent of which serve students with special needs. The company also provides motorcoach and transit service, but would like to focus its attention exclusively on pupil transportation in the future. "We hope to continue to grow at a controlled growth rate, which will include our existing marketplaces, but may include other U.S. states over time," says Barry.
Northstar Passenger Services Ltd.
Fleet size: 320 buses
Districts served: 7
Number of drivers: 300
Garage staff: 7
Territory: Barrie, Ottawa, Perth, Pickering, Brampton
Glenn Needler, president
Northstar Passenger Services Ltd. is a young company with a wealth of experience at its helm. Glenn Needler, former senior vice president of Canadian operations for Laidlaw Transit Ltd., founded the company with John Woodcroft, formerly director of business development for Laidlaw. With 320 vehicles in its fleet, the company has bases in Ottawa, Perth, Pickering and Brampton.
Northstar has acquired two existing school transportation companies since it was launched two years ago. Most of Northstar's drivers continued with Northstar when their previous employers were acquired by the company. "We're proud to say we have a good, dedicated driving force, and we're able to attract and retain a good group of people who know they have an important role in our company," says Needler.
Beyond the minimum driver training required by the province, Northstar provides supplemental training tailored to the specific needs of each driver. "One thing we do is make sure that they [the drivers] are well prepared for the road," says Needler. Safety meetings are conducted on a regular basis.
Needler says that a friendly rapport between drivers and management is fundamental to driver satisfaction and retention. "One thing we realized a long time ago is that the drivers are crucial to the operation of the company, and we make every effort to make them genuinely feel part of the company," he says. This includes a number of social functions throughout the year.
Northstar's approach to employee relations is working. "I'm really proud of all of our management and operations people for developing an excellent morale among our employees. Everybody has rallied around the company and made it a success," he says. This summer, the company will announce at least one new acquisition, he adds.
Fleet size: 430 buses
Students transported: 33,000
Number of drivers: 600
Garage staff: 25
Guy Sirois, executive vice president
Groupe-Gaudreault Inc. was founded 50 years ago by Raymond Gaudreault (the father of the company's current president) and is today the largest private contractor fleet in Quebec. The company provides transportation services for the eastern half of the province, including most of the school districts in the Montreal area.
Groupe-Gaudreault is known for its emphasis on driver training and education and its active recruitment and hiring process. To combat the severe driver shortage in Quebec, the company has established a "headhunter" position on staff and hired someone to specialize exclusively in driver recruitment and training. The headhunter solicits driver candidates by advertising in news publications and scheduling various activities that promote the importance of bus drivers. Once applicants are found, they undergo a meticulous hiring procedure. If they pass the pre-hire tests, they are retained on a 90-day temporary basis, to be further evaluated.
"The shortage is tough, and it is hard to find drivers. But we are known because we have the most advanced driver formation (training) and education, and we have all kinds of programs put together so we can stay the best," says Guy Sirois, executive V.P.
Groupe-Gaudreault has a unique maintenance system that involves self-verification of mechanical upkeep. The company has an agreement with the Automobile Insurance Society of Quebec, the branch of the Quebec Ministry of Transportation dedicated to ensuring fleet maintenance and safety, to allow all mechanical work to be privately verified. As a result of this agreement, Groupe-Gaudreault bypasses otherwise mandatory public service checks.
Hertz Northern Bus
Fleet size: 265 buses
Students transported: More than 6,500
Districts served: 6
Number of drivers: 280 with 10 alternates
Garage staff: 7
Ron Bergen, director of administration
A full-service contractor, Hertz Northern Bus provides school transportation for six school districts in Saskatoon and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. It has a fleet of 265 buses, and transports students from more than 50 public and private schools in the region. Located in the northern half of the province, the fleet must operate in heavy snow and ice for more than half of the school year.
Computer technology helps Hertz's operators maintain control of a challenging operation. The company uses a custom-developed software program that tracks students, drivers, schools and buses. The program can also track engine and vehicle conditions to allow for simpler preventive maintenance. The software provides drivers, school officials, technicians, managers and parents instant access to updated lists of data, including student name, address and phone number, class, school, pick-up and drop-off location and time, route maps and bus stop times.
Hertz maintains a full crew of drivers, with plenty of replacement drivers to prevent the company from falling victim to the driver shortage. "I know there is usually a severe driver shortage throughout this industry. But I would say we have a driver challenge and not a driver shortage because we are always covering all of our routes," says Ron Bergen, director of administration.
In compliance with government regulations, Hertz's buses are inspected and serviced annually. However, the company also mandates that they be serviced every three months or 4,000 kilometers. Operators use battery blankets, heaters and other standard devices to battle extremely cold temperatures. The fleet database also records vehicle work orders, school bus inspection dates and parts inventory.
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