Great Fleets Across America, Part III

Posted on October 1, 2001

Newbury, Mass.

Fleet 100 buses
Students transported daily 8,500
Staff 125
Schools served 5 school districts, public, private and parochial schools
Service area 25 square miles

John Salter, president of Salter Transportation Inc. in Newbury, Mass., is a firm believer in proactive driver recruitment -- know your most likely driver candidates and market to those groups. He’s designed and produced ads that run on about 15 cable TV stations such as CNN, ESPN, USA and TNT. His target advertising groups are mothers who want to take their children with them to work and retired or semi-retired people. Starting the year off with three or four drivers to spare, Salter certainly seems to be doing something right. “I can’t remember the last time we had a driver shortage,” he says. Once drivers come on staff at Salter Transportation, they tend to stay. “In the course of last school year, we only had one person leave the company of their own accord. That’s out of 100-odd drivers,” notes Salter. The safety manager spends two hours going over the company’s policy book with new employees. The policy book, says Salter, is key to defining duties and expectations. “We try to treat drivers with a level of integrity that would be bestowed on someone with a regular 40-hour-a-week salary job,” he says. Driver first aid and CPR training are required at Salter Transportation, despite the fact that this training is not required by contract. “I just feel that, with the kind of cargo we’re transporting, it’s important to have that kind of training,” says Salter. Drivers also benefit from the use of modern, well-maintained equipment. Eighty percent of the fleet is composed of buses that are five years old or newer. Not a single vehicle has failed the quarterly state inspections in years. Lee Lamkin, Salter’s director of training, developed a program to allow misbehaving students a last chance to receive transportation services. If their parents attend a 90-minute safety program in the evening, the students will not be suspended from the bus. Lamkin says the program has had unexpected benefits. “Not only have discipline issues gone down, but these students have become spokespeople, letting other misbehaving students know that they will end up in this program if they don’t behave and follow the rules,” she says.


Hudsonville, Mich.

Students transported daily 4,800
Drivers 60
Schools served 15
Driver wages $15 per hour
Service area 100 square miles

Having four drivers place in the top 10 at the state roadeo is a rarity, to say the least, but this year the transportation department at Hudsonville Public Schools did just that, with drivers placing third, fourth, fifth and seventh. One of those drivers also earned the title Rookie of the Year for her accomplishments in her first-ever roadeo. “We have a really good rapport with other districts,” explains Transportation Supervior Jane Bykerk. “We do favors for other districts a lot. That kind of carries over to the roadeo, because the drivers already know the other [districts’] drivers, so it’s a lot of fun.” Bykerk says that it’s not uncommon for her drivers to pick up a neighboring district’s students who are in the Hudsonville district for a special program or event. The nearby districts reciprocate. Despite the fact that the district population has more than doubled over the past 10 years, Bykerk says the transportation department is not having great difficulty accommodating the added routes. She attributes this, in large part, to the fact that the department has a very low rate of driver turnover. “To be able to have people who stay and commit to the work is really great,” she says. “Everyone here works really well together. That seems to be the key to a successful operation.” Adding to driver satisfaction is the fact that two new mechanics were hired two years ago, greatly increasing the productivity of the maintenance department. “Drivers are much happier because the buses are being repaired in a shorter amount of time,” says mechanic Mike Knoper. At about the same time as the two new mechanics were hired, Bykerk was promoted from transportation secretary to director. “Those two major changes have increased morale immensely,” says Knoper. He says performance has improved as well. Bykerk describes the new mechanics as her “right hand,” adding that their patience and knowledge make her job much easier. “This new team has now been through three state inspections without a tag of any color.”


St. Paul, Minn.

Fleet 1,300 buses
Students transported daily 100,000
Schools 18 school districts
Staff 100
Service area Wider Twin City Area

Feeling that more could be done to address the issues of public awareness, driver recognition and industry image, First Student Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., designed and launched a Cool School Bus Salute program last year. The nine-week program, conducted in conjunction with Radio Disney, KDWB, KKMS and AT&T Broadband, enabled Minnesota residents to nominate exemplary drivers and passengers for recognition in several categories, such as driver-student relations, school bus cleanliness and exemplary rider behavior. Industry officials were recruited to serve as judges, and one salute per week was awarded, along with a prize -- gift certificates for drivers and goody bags for students. Local newspapers reported on the winners. “Parents and schools took advantage of this unique opportunity to say thank you to drivers,” says Joyce Wahlin-Rhoades, regional safety manager for First Student. Driver Juedi Lapowski-Alexander, who received a “salute,” says she was honored. “I view it as an inspiration to help drivers do their job well,” she says. “This program brings to the forefront the importance of our drivers and rewards good behavior from the children,” says Julie English of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Minneapolis, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing traffic crashes. “The Cool School Bus Salute program has boosted morale and created a healthy competition among drivers and passengers alike,” she says. First Student has also implemented a CAP program -- Collisions Are Preventable/Children Are Precious -- to encourage teamwork and to educate workers on the importance of daily vehicle inspections. As a play on the program’s name, the venture involves awarding school-bus safety caps to meritorious drivers. “There are three reflective stripes on each side of the cap, representing safety, operation and maintenance working together,” explains Rhoades. The color of the cap was selected to match Excellent Driver Club jackets, and the artwork symbolizes children of different races, genders and special needs. “Locations were ‘capped,’ meaning all employees at the location earned caps if the entire location was able to achieve certain safety goals,” says Rhoades.


Newton, Miss.

Fleet 17 buses
Students transported daily 1,040
Drivers 17
Schools served 3
Driver wages $22.38 per day
Budget $274,643

Three years ago, when Superintendent Mina Bryan came to Newton Municipal School District, the transportation department was in shambles. “The garage was totally a mess. You could not find anything. Every tool was filthy and on the floor,” describes Bryan. “We started from the ground up and reworked transportation.” One of the first changes Bryan implemented was to create filing and inventory-control systems for the shop. From there, she instituted a documentation process for activity trip bus requests. A district of only three schools, Newton Municipal augments its daily transportation of 1,040 students with regular athletic, academic and extracurricular activity trips. “At times, we are the smallest and the most traveled district in the state,” says Bryan. Bryan is currently working toward providing incentives to transportation personnel. She sends personal thank-you notes to employees for jobs well done and attempts to remind them at least twice a month of their importance to the district. She works hand in hand with drivers to solve discipline problems on the bus. When Regina Ginn, Mississippi’s state director of pupil transportation, visited the department in the early days of its transition, Bryan told Ginn that she intended for the operation to become one of the top transportation departments in the state. “She laughed all the way back to Jackson,” says Bryan. However, Ginn’s next visit several months later was a completely different experience. “It is the perfect Cinderella story. We were clean, organized, running buses effectively and efficiently,” says Bryan. “For the folks here in transportation, it has meant long, difficult hours of work, with the finished product -- a real garage and a real fleet -- working like they need to work.”


Willard, Mo.

Fleet 35 buses
Students transported daily 2,150
Staff 33
Schools served 6
Driver wages $55 to $70 per day
Service area 113.6 square miles
Transportation budget $626,000

Drivers at Willard R2 Schools in Willard, Mo., started off this school year with a combination “Survivor-Weakest Link” Contest. The brainchild of Transportation Supervisor Barbara Meese, the contest involved questions about state and local laws and other transportation issues. Much like the tournament of “Bus Driver Feud,” the staff played at last year’s final inservice, this exercise involved props, such as buzzers borrowed from the math department, and prizes, such as gift certificates to local restaurants, for winning teams. “We try to make every inservice interesting and challenging, instead of just filling out a question-and-answer paper,” explains Meese. Driver in-service sessions are held at least once a month, and even if the lessons aren’t always delivered via a prize-winning contest, the drivers can always count on one thing -- free donuts. In addition, each year supervisors celebrate their drivers’ and aides’ birthdays by buying them breakfast and giving them a personal card. “Our drivers also surprise us by giving us gifts or surprise parties for our birthdays and gift certificates for Christmas,” notes Meese. “It’s their way of saying thank you.” Because the driver shortage put such a strain on the department’s ability to cover routes, Willard R2 Schools recently moved to staggered school start times. “This enables us to have the same bus and driver for two routes, which means more hours [for drivers], which translates to more money for them,” says Meese. This essentially means a raise for the drivers, which pleases Meese. “I think good, dedicated people who have enormous responsibility deserve to be paid the most we can afford.” Meese makes annual trips into the classrooms to talk to students about bus safety. This year, she gave a miniature yellow bus to each child. She also told them a school bus safety story and instructed them to tell their bus drivers what they learned. “They were instructed to go back to their school bus and tell their bus driver that they know the bus rules and will be following them,” she says.


Hamilton, Mont.

Fleet 21 buses
Students transported daily 890
Staff 14
Schools served 5
Route mileage 480 miles per day

Two years ago, when Matt Schultz, president of M/S Transportation, served as president of the Montana Association for Pupil Transportation (MAPT), he decided to hold an old-fashioned, small-town conference, complete with horse-drawn wagons. Since then, MAPT members have been requesting that the annual conference return to Matt Schultz’s town of Hamilton, where he can give it the personal touch. In two more years, they will have their wish. Schultz, who has been in the school bus business for 22 years, bought M/S Transportation (then functioning under a different name) 11 years ago. “When the transportation business came up for sale, I’d been in the industry so long that I went for it,” he says. Schultz likes to maintain close relations with his fellow transportation managers -- even those who operate on the other side of the state. As part of his efforts toward industry involvement, Schultz is working on a board with Maxine Mouget, Montana state director of pupil transportation, to rewrite the school transportation standards for the state. Unlike most operators nationwide, Schultz says he has no trouble with the driver shortage. He attributes this largely to the professionalism and dedication of the type of people who are drawn to a school bus driving position. “I have probably four out of nine full-time people who are retired, so they just do this to get out and be with the kids. They’re not worried about how much they make and the insurance benefits and that,” he explains. In hiring three new employees this school year, he far surpassed the normal turnover rate for his operation. Schultz also attests that student discipline causes him no headaches. “The least of my worries in this whole business are discipline problems,” he says. His drivers have the authority to deal directly with parents on student discipline issues, thus eliminating the long delays that occur when student conduct reports go through administrative channels. “I have found that the parent-driver deal is the only way to do it,” says Schultz. “I don’t know what happened on that bus. I’m not there. The driver is.”


York, Neb.

Fleet 15 buses
Students transported daily 550
Drivers 14
Schools served 6
Driver wages $8 per hour
Service area 110 square miles
Mileage 300,000 miles per year

For York Public Schools Transportation Director Arthur Keller, keeping in touch with the local media is more than a matter of good public relations. It’s a means of keeping parents informed of serious weather conditions or other concerns that might affect their children’s transportation. He remembers a time a few years ago when a hail- and wind-storm threatened to turn into a tornado. Buses were set to return to the district from a soccer tournament 22 miles away. “I called the radio station and told the radio to broadcast that the buses with the soccer teams were held up at a town west of us.” When the buses arrived home, Keller went on the air live to make the announcement. Quite simply, says Keller, “It relieves a lot of anxiety when they [parents] know what’s going on.” Knowing that parental concerns don’t cease when the transportation office closes, York Public Schools uses a 24-hour answering service to take messages from and relay messages to concerned parents. With a curriculum focused on hands-on learning and field research, students at York Public Schools take many field trips a year. “We’re probably hauling 100 [students] a day on activity trips, a lot of them to destinations 50 or more miles away,” notes Keller. If a bus is more than a half an hour off schedule, the driver will contact the answering service and provide information to relay to concerned parents. The department also uses the answering service to communicate details on snow days and other impediments to the morning pickup process. “Instead of flooding our phones here at the garage, they can take the calls,” he says. Meager in size, the department is not meager in scope. YorkÕs fleet was chosen as the site for a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) pilot program for driver training in proper installation of child safety seats. The cooperative effort with Head Start involved the participation of representatives from NHTSA, the Nebraska School Transportation Association, the police department and more.


Carson City, Nev.

Fleet 47 buses
Students transported daily 4,700
Schools served 9
Driver wages $9 to $11 per hour
Staff 56

You can’t rest on your laurels at Carson City School District. Each summer, bus drivers -- whether rookies or 20-year veterans -- must pass CDL exams conducted by the transportation department. “Times are set up, and each driver must come in and pass the exams,” says Transportation Supervisor Kevin Curnes. “It’s all for the safety of the drivers and the children.” Drivers who fail the exams must be retrained and then retested. Curnes says his transportation program “goes over and above the normal charter.” For example, not satisfied with requiring first aid and CPR certification only of drivers, Curnes requires that all staff members earn their stripes. “That way, they’re ready when first aid or CPR is needed,” he says. “And it’s been needed.” Involvement is strongly emphasized, whether it’s community service and outreach or serving on local, regional or state committees. Curnes says staff members have participated on state panels dealing with the revision of the driver handbook and the minimum standards and specifications. Meanwhile, Curnes is president of the Nevada School Transportation Association. “we’re on any committee the state needs,” he says. Curnes praises his drivers for their involvement in the community. “We have really good people,” he says. “They know the habits of the kids, and they’re on a first-name basis with a lot of the parents.” The department also volunteers its services to organizations such as the local boys and girls clubs as well as National Guard-sponsored youth camps. The driver shortage, though easing in some parts of the country, is still a critical problem at Carson City. Curnes says his drivers average 4 to 4 1/2 hours per day, but can get full-time employment at stores such as Home Depot, Lowes and Costco, not to mention the local casinos. “It’s an interesting scenario,” he says. Curnes has been with the district for eight years, transitioning to pupil transportation after spending 21 years working in the electronics industry. “I moved here to relax and retire,” he says, adding that he’s postponed retirement indefinitely. “This is more interesting than I thought it would be,” he explains.


Concord, N.H.

Fleet 67 buses
Students transported daily 5,100
Staff 72
Schools served 18
Driver wages $10.75 per hour
Annual miles more than 1 million
Annual budget $1.85 million

Four years ago, the Concord School District Transportation Department began managing the transportation operation for neighboring Merrimack Valley School District. “That was quite a change for us,” notes Transportation Director David Hardy. “This is the first time I know of that this has ever been done in New Hampshire.” With the added 28 Merrimack Valley school buses, the fleet Concord manages and maintains became 67 buses strong. The new contract added 2,100 new riders to the 3,000 Concord already transported. Hardy says that Concord is the perfect combination of big-city diversity and small-town atmosphere. “Concord is big enough so that we attract a diverse group of retired individuals. I’ve had CEOs of large insurance companies, police officers, fire chiefs and medical professionals,” says Hardy. But this doesn’t keep the department from becoming overpopulated and impersonal. “We’re large enough to collect those people and we’re small enough so that we can listen to them and act on their ideas,” he says. And Hardy does just that. About 10 years ago, he started a safety review committee, made up of about six drivers and himself. “They not only review accidents and collisions, but they also review complaints the drivers have about stops, loading zones and the like,” explains Hardy. Committee members have contacted the city to inquire into tree trimming and are currently analyzing a principal’s request to double-load buses side-by-side at the school site. “They give me good results. We’ve changed some loading zones at schools because of some suggestions they have,” says Hardy. Concord and Merrimack staff participate in a monthly morale meeting, where they have the opportunity to share problems, plan parties or work toward other goals. Hardy’s drivers have created and published their own quarterly newsletter, which they work on after hours, with no pay. “We supply them with the computer to do it and they put in what they think is interesting,” explains Hardy.


Flemington, N.J.

Fleet 100 buses
Students transported daily 6,895
Staff 122
Annual miles more than 2 million

It occurred to Linda Yenzer, transportation director for the Hunterdon Central/Flemington Raritan school district, that perhaps the vehicles in her fleet could be put to good use during off-peak hours, when students are in class or at home. “Linda Yenzer takes her interest in transportation and community service well beyond the workday,” explains district business administrator Sybrigje Herman. Also serving as treasurer of the Hunterdon Area Rural Transportation Authority, Yenzer found just the way to deploy her district’s buses. And so was born a pilot program called Buses to Business, wherein the school district provides transportation to and from the workplace for disabled individuals in the community. The project proposal summarizes the Buses to Business endeavor as “an innovative suburban/rural transit initiative which seeks to utilize empty school buses (during off-peak hours) to supplement the Hunterdon County ‘LINK’ system.” The first year pilot program was a success, having provided 10 participants with 556 trips to and from work or school sites. Both the providers and the riders were pleased with the service. In one case, a rider’s commute time was reduced by 90 minutes. The Buses to Business program proposed for this year will seek to expand services to other community members and to find ways to operate school buses during school holidays, summer vacations, early dismissals and cancellations. The Hunterdon Central/Flemington Raritan district partnership is the only one of its kind in New Jersey, and results in more than $1 million in savings a year, through tiering of routes and maximizing the use of vehicles. Two mechanics perform maintenance on 60 of the districts’ 100 vehicles. An in-house safety specialist trainer puts all driver candidates through a rigorous training program. Department members also work closely with the families of special-needs students, meeting with them before they begin ridership to familiarize them with the vehicle and learn of any special procedures that must be followed. Through its kindergarten orientation program, new riders have the opportunity to ride the bus to school for the first time with their parents.

Related Topics: Great Fleets

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