Great Fleets Across America, Part II

Posted on October 1, 2001

West Palm Beach, Fla.

Fleet 673 buses
Students transported daily 62,000
Schools served 150
Approximate daily mileage 69,440
Number of drivers 640
Driver wages $10-$15 per hour

Transporting students to and from 150 schools, the School District of Palm Beach County has implemented some interesting programs that satisfy its unique needs. For instance, the district transports students to 42 magnet programs in the area, many of which require long commutes. To facilitate transporting these students, the district created the Tri Rail System, a coordinated transportation plan that involves taking students to schools in trains, public transit and school buses. “It’s a cooperative community system using several different means of transportation,” says Bob Riley, director of transportation. “More than 2,000 high school students use the system to get to school every day.” Palm Beach County also uses a comprehensive award system to recognize its employees. Gifts are given consistently as incentives for hard work, and there is a $100 monthly attendance bonus. The district also presents a monthly top-driver award and an annual driver-of-the-year award. Riley says that the award system has improved employee morale and has led to a wholesale improvement in staff retention. “We started this school year with a full staff for the first time in years,” he says. The fleet is in excellent condition, thanks to the efforts of a large and well-trained staff of maintenance personnel. With 75 shop workers in five separate bus compounds, Riley attests that he oversees “the best maintained fleet in the country.” No bus is more than 10 years old, and 50 percent of the vehicles are less than five years of age. After starting a program to upgrade the buses three years ago, a full third of the fleet is now equipped with air conditioning. Riley says it won’t be long before the entire fleet is air-conditioned because it has a positive effect on student behavior. The major strength of the Palm Beach County transportation department is that it is cost-efficient. Riley says that compared with other districts of similar size, Palm Beach County transports more students at a lower cost with an exceptional safety record. “Our ultimate goal is to provide safe transportation at a minimum cost to keep dollars in the classroom where they belong,” he says.


Lawrenceville, Ga.

Fleet 1,050 buses
Students transported daily 80,000
Schools served 85
Approximate daily mileage 81,000
Number of drivers 1,042
Average driver wage $13.50 to $14 per hour

As the largest school system in Georgia, the transportation department at Gwinnett County Public Schools is responsible for the safety of more than 80,000 students. Thus, preparing both the staff and the students increases the probability that an accident will be prevented. The district provides all students with an ongoing training program on safe school bus riding practices. It is a required part of the health and safety curriculum in the elementary and middle schools. The student safety program is taught in the classroom by teachers who use text and supporting videos developed by the transportation department. The school system also employs three safety managers who investigate accidents and safety hazards. A risk management department that reviews accidents and decides whether administrative action should be taken. Safety and preparation are greatly emphasized by the department, as evidenced by the various forms of training offered to employees. The district provides the following special training programs: new driver, special needs, school bus monitor, CPR, defensive driving, return to work, accident, driver proficiency test, remedial training, student safety and special programs upon request. According to Grant Reppert, director of transportation, the training programs are clearly paying off. “We had one employee who saved a choking baby on the same evening that she received certification for CPR training. The doctor said that without her intervention, the baby would have died,” he says. Additionally, because Gwinnett County requires that its employees receive 20 hours a year of professional development, a special joint program with the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute (PTSI) was developed for ongoing training. Kathy Furneaux, training specialist for PTSI, designs modular programs to cover issues ranging from driver attitude to student behavior management. Reppert says, “The PTSI trainers are all experienced, and they communicate well, which makes the classes they teach much more responsive.” Gwinnett County also developed a program in which drivers actively recruit other drivers. “This totally turned around our driver shortage,” says Reppert. “We invest in people. I let drivers take a lot of responsibility,” he adds. “The result is that we build very trusting relationships with our employees.”


Boise, Idaho

Fleet 161 buses
Students transported daily 7,000
Schools served 42
Annual mileage 1,900,000
Drivers 149

Durham School Services in Boise, Idaho, provides efficient, dependable and award-winning transportation to the students of Boise School District – Idaho’s biggest school system. Patricia Kinsey, DurhamÕs transportation manager, won the National Student Transportation Association’s Golden Merit Award for 2000. The award is handed out annually, honoring school bus contract operators for their excellence of service, safety programs and outstanding demonstration of community responsibility. Kinsey believes that creating a positive work environment is the key to retaining employees and running a strong transportation operation. Employee appreciation is a strong suit around Durham’s office. Methods of showing this appreciation include monthly employee appreciation days, cooking breakfast for employees, cookie days, box lunches, pins, T-shirts and holiday celebrations. Kinsey also emphasizes professional development and provides opportunities for the staff to develop their skills. She has helped many employees advance and work their way up to higher positions within the Durham corporation. “The bottom line,” says Kinsey, “is that everything starts from within, so we must communicate a very positive attitude.” She says the attitude helps Durham’s relationship with the school district too. “We are constantly working at it; communicating, sharing ideas about issues and finding solutions,” she says. Another area in which the operation excels is maintenance. In fact, Boise’s facility was recently recognized within the company as the best maintenance garage in the entire Durham family. This is impressive as Durham is a subsidiary of National Express Corp., the third- largest contractor in North America. Three maintenance technicians were recently honored at luncheons to commemorate their ASE certification. A miniscule breakdown rate demonstrates their skill. In addition, Durham School Services transports Special Olympics athletes and provides volunteers to help with other services. “We were recently a sponsor of the ‘Stuff the Bus’ program, in which we drove a bus to the local mall and loaded it with school supplies for needy children,” says Kinsey.


Palatine, Ill.

Fleet 138 buses
Students transported daily 9,907
Number of drivers and aides 156
Schools served 23
District area 36 square miles
Driver wages $15.35/hr

Community Consolidated School District 15 works hard to meet the unique needs of both its community and its schools. “We provide transportation for before- and after-school activities for children and their parents and work with community organizations to provide transportation for non-school community activities,” says John G. Conyers, Ed.D., superintendent of schools. The school system also holds food drives for a local food pantry and collects clothing, funds and food for the needy. The district excels in dealing with its significant number of bilingual students. Blanca Souders, assistant department director, speaks fluent Spanish and spends much of her time communicating with Spanish-speaking parents. Additionally, School District 15 meets the needs of the many special-education students, who represent 14 percent of the entire student population. The operation has numerous special-education routes, with 13 wheelchair buses and a set of dedicated drivers and aides. School District 15 has video-monitoring systems installed on all large-capacity buses in its fleet. Since the installation of the cameras, the number of disciplinary notices reporting student misbehavior aboard buses has dropped 80 percent. Other vehicle safety features include seat belts, crossing gates and roof-mounted strobe lights. New drivers in the department receive 80 paid hours of training before they are assigned to a bus route. Meanwhile, experienced drivers annually receive 20 hours of individualized training to help them stay sharp. “Each year, we log approximately 1.5 million miles with our school buses, and each year our safety record is exemplary. We work continually to test our safety procedures and develop new practices for improving our service,” says Conyers. School District 15 maintains a high department morale by stressing a sense of community and responsibility. “We offer competitive wages and comprehensive benefits, but we believe that what our employees really value is the department’s open communication policy and the sense of being part of a team,” says Conyers.


Brazil, Ind.

Fleet 73 buses
Students transported daily 4,400
Schools served 10
Approximate daily mileage 3,250
Number of drivers 55 full time (20 subs)
Average driver wage $65 to $70 per day

Its excellent maintenance record reflects the great success of Clay Community School Corporation’s transportation department. For six consecutive years, the fleet has passed the state police inspection with a 100 percent rating. The operation’s three mechanics have a rigid inspection checklist, and they work in close connection with the drivers to ensure that every bus is ready for inspection. Says Director of Transportation Frank Misner, “It’s never taken us more than two days to get all of our buses through inspection; we turn things around immediately.” This quick and meticulous work has not been lost on the inspectors for the state police. The head police inspector was quoted on the local TV news as saying that Clay is the best school corporation he has ever inspected. The television exposure was not the first time the transportation department has received major media publicity. It recently attracted attention from newspapers after teaming with law enforcement officials to start a campaign encouraging drivers to stop for school buses. The campaign issued safety tips and worked to spread awareness about the dangers of stop-arm running. The corporation is also thorough in its driver training practices. There are two driver trainers -- one for each region of the county -- and they head up the majority of the pre-employment process. The typical hiring procedure starts with an application, drug test and background check. If applicants pass these, they attend a three-day school session conducted by the trainers. Then they go through a 12-hour intensive training course to prepare them for the comprehensive final test. Misner attests that the school system is most proud of its employees. After heading the operation for more than two years, Misner has yet to hire a new special-needs driver because the turnover rate is so low. In fact, the average employment tenure for the 75 part- or full-time drivers is about 12 years, with some having more than 30 years of experience with the company. “I can’t say enough about my staff. They have such a great safety consciousness, and after years with the corporation, they have a lot of experience,” he says.


Muscatine, Iowa

Fleet 39 buses
Students transported daily 2,038
Schools served 13
Approximate annual mileage 365,197
Number of drivers 43
Average driver wage $15.80

In two of the past four years, Transportation Supervisor Eloise Lloyd has made presentations at the Iowa State School Transportation Conference on innovative programs run by the Muscatine Community School District. One of these programs is a student training plan that uses a mascot as an instructional tool to emphasize school bus safety to preschool and elementary students. The mascot is a dinosaur called Buddy the Bus-a-saurus that preaches important safety tips to young children while entertaining at the same time. Creative programs such as this one make Muscatine’s transportation department a leader in school transportation. Another program successfully implemented by the district is its unique discipline policy. The program started four years ago when the district called a meeting to discuss student behavior. Police officers, parents, principals, probation officers and drivers attended the meeting. They developed a community network strategy that called for all concerned parties to provide support for each other by staying in constant communication. For instance, the bus driver must contact a student’s parents before any discipline referrals can be written. “When we started our discipline policy, we had 800 referral sheets written for discipline problems on school buses. Last year, we had a total of 125,” says Lloyd. “In fact, I personally didn’t have one parent conference.” Another effective technique that Muscatine uses is what Lloyd calls the contract management group. The group, composed of five bus drivers, Lloyd and her immediate supervisor, meets frequently to discuss business matters and generate potential solutions. They talk about issues such as student management, road construction problems and driver dilemmas. Lloyd explains that she also meets daily with her drivers in the break room to offer more immediate assistance if necessary. “At our operation, we address problems as a group because circumstances change on a weekly basis,” she says. Lloyd explains that last year snow and ice caused major route changes, and spring floods wiped out one of the most oft-used highway in the entire district. These events require attention from everyone in the department.


Kansas City, Kan.

Fleet 17 buses
Students transported daily 537
Schools 13
Drivers 18
Wages $10.00/hr.
Daily mileage 336 miles

Sam Malone, transportation coordinator for the Economic Opportunity Foundation’s Head Start program (EOF Head Start), is a man who wears many hats. Not only is he in charge of managing and authorizing maintenance for a fleet of 17 buses, but he is also the head of driver training -- which is no easy task in a program that transports pre-kindergarten children. EOF Head Start drivers must be adept at ensuring every child is secured in a child safety seat that meets federal motor vehicle standards. In addition to 40 hours of driver and safety training, each driver must complete eight additional hours of training on safety seats. Drivers operating buses with wheelchair lifts and other special equipment must undergo further specialized training. Bus maintenance is outsourced, using a variety of repair services. “It depends on what the problem is with the bus, which vendor gets the business,” explains Malone. Using more than one repair service enables EOF Head Start to seek out the greatest expertise at the lowest price. In-house training takes place once a month, with sessions on child behavior and CPR, in addition to classes aimed at boosting employee morale. Malone puts out a monthly newsletter for the staff and parents, recognizing drivers with exemplary attendance and records. He stresses that the fleet is more than just a mode of transportation – it’s a community resource. A free child safety seat installation station is provided for members of the community. Malone also set up a safety seat loaner program, so an effort is made for all children to be transported safely, even outside of the school bus. All drivers have personal interaction with parents and teachers, which is nurtured by a monthly meeting encompassing all three groups. When faced with potential challenges, Malone takes a positive attitude. With the beginning of a new school year close at hand, he approaches the driver shortage with great confidence. “I’m short a couple of drivers, but I also think I have a couple to hire,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, so there are really no big challenges. We’ve pretty much got it down.”


Mt. Sterling, Ky.

Fleet 61 buses
Students transported daily 2,279
Schools served 7
Annual mileage 740,101
Drivers 67
Operating budget $1,509,304

The Montgomery County Schools transportation department specializes in being an organized operation. From training to employee management to fleet maintenance, the district takes pride in its systematic approach to ensuring safe student transportation. With computer software programs and an advanced filing system, the department can keep track of large amounts of information and stay on top of its duties. Every driver contract, annual CDL physicals, criminal record check, driver’s license and education history are kept on record. Complete verification is made of pre-employment road tests, initial driver training requirements and drug and alcohol testing. Montgomery also has a computerized routing system and a computer-generated preventive maintenance and inventory program. In April 2000, a state management assessment team audit gave the maintenance shop an exemplary overall rating. Almost every action taken by the transportation department is on a regulated schedule. For instance, the school bus replacement system formulates a bus depreciation cycle in which approximately 8 percent of the fleet is replaced annually. Moreover, lists of every passenger on every bus are maintained and revised daily. Additionally, Montgomery County has its own policies for loading and unloading, discipline and accident reporting. Everything is referenced in the transportation policy manual, which is frequently updated and passed out to all department personnel. Its meticulous work ethic and attention to detail has allowed the operation to conduct safe and dependable student transportation. The success hasn’t gone unnoticed either. In June, the Kentucky Department of Education selected Montgomery County as the 2001-02 Exemplary District in the pupil transportation category. Also, one of its driver trainers was chosen as Driver Trainer of the Year by the Kentucky Association for Pupil Transportation. “Our department motto is ‘Kentucky’s Team to Beat,’” says Karen Gullett, director of transportation. “The driver willingness to work with my staff and me in all areas of transportation is what makes our operation great.”


Saint Francisville, La.

Fleet 28 buses
Students transported daily 1,900
Drivers 30
Schools served
Driver wages $17,104 per year, plus benefits

In the past three years, Joe Wells, transportation supervisor for the West Feliciana Parish School Board in Saint Francisville, has had many things on his plate -- the implementation of age-appropriate busing, major changes in school start and stop times, early dismissal days for staff development and the construction of a new middle school. Many of the district’s buses serve more than one school. According to Lloyd Lindsey, superintendent of West Feliciana Parish Schools, “Joe Wells interacts with his bus drivers in such a positive manner that major changes in routing are supported by drivers system-wide.” This driver support is reflected in attendance records. Among school district employees, school bus driver attendance ranks at the top. Located in a rural community about 25 miles north of Baton Rouge, West Feliciana Parish has a high proportion of student ridership, with more than 80 percent of the student body receiving transportation services. The school district recently outfitted the entire fleet with roof-mounted strobe lights to increase the visibility of the vehicles on the road. One of the district’s drivers, who also happens to be a mechanic, installed the strobe lights for the district at no cost. “Each driver has indicated that these lights have made it safer to operate their buses, especially in the more rural areas,” says Wells. School administrators and bus drivers coordinate efforts to solve disciplinary problems. “Any problems are handled just as if the students were in the classroom, and this allows for a much safer environment for the students and drivers,” he says. Wells also works as a liaison between the school system and local law enforcement and has been instrumental in the development of the School Bus Operator Training Manual for the Louisiana Department of Education. The manual is used to train every transportation supervisor in the state to teach pre-service and inservice training to their drivers.


Oxford, Maine

Fleet 45 buses
Students transported daily 2,900
Drivers 45
Schools served 8
Driver wages $10.14 to $11.59
Daily mileage 2,590

What exactly does it take to become a Great Fleet? According to Ronald Deegan, director of transportation at Oxford Hills School District in Oxford, Maine, it takes rigorous training. “My philosophy here has been that you can’t expect a driver to do the job unless you give [him or her] the leadership tools to do that. Problem solving, decision making, conflict resolution and effective communication and listening skills are all part of the training,” says Deegan. Oxford Hills employs a state-certified in-house trainer to teach defensive driving and technical driving skills. Deegan himself designs and presents the PowerPoint presentation portion of driver training. In addition, a driver-training library is being built for the convenience of the bus drivers. This will allow them to refresh their knowledge in areas in which they have already been trained. Safety is top on the minds of everyone in the transportation department, and out of this concern has grown the Transportation Improvement Committee (TIC). A group of bus drivers and mechanics, the TIC meets once a month to share safety concerns. The person responsible for the best safety idea each month receives a prize, as well as recognition for promoting safety awareness. Currently in the works is a Transportation Safety Webpage. “Staff morale is an area we are constantly focusing on,” says Deegan. The department adopted the motto, “Dare to Accept the Challenge.” “This statement has built the teamwork philosophy that is crucial to any successful organization,” explains Deegan. The staff’s optimistic outlook and reliance on teamwork enables employees to remain strong in the face of adversity. “It’s okay to admit that you have a weakness,” says Deegan, “because that is what a team is: You rely on someone else’s strength.”


Crownsville, Md.

Fleet 28 buses
Students transported daily 2,200
Drivers 26
Schools served 30
Service area Anne Arundel County

The 28 school buses operated by R.E. Wilson and Sons in Crownsville, Md., don’t roll out of your typical bus lot each morning. Instead, they depart from a farm. “My father was a tobacco farmer,” explains Vice President Jim Wilson, whose parents started the company 50 years ago. “At first he raised tobacco and had buses on the side. Now we raise buses and lease our land out for farming.” Wilson’s mother and father still play an active role in the company -- which is almost unavoidable, since their home is located on the same property as the bus lot. Though many farmers in the area double as school bus operators, R.E. Wilson and Sons was recently faced with a legal battle over zoning laws that forbid the operation of a commercial business on farmland. “It would have meant trying to find commercial property, which is very expensive in this area,” says Wilson. Luckily, the county agreed to allow long-established operators like R.E. Wilson and Sons to continue business from their original property. Routing at R.E. Wilson and Sons is still done by hand – Wilson’s hand. Fleet maintenance also falls into his lap. With occasional support from a shop assistant, Wilson performs routine maintenance on all of the fleet’s buses himself, saving only the heavy maintenance work for an outside repair service. With the driver shortage hitting as hard here as everywhere else, Wilson’s maintenance duties are usually performed after he has helped cover the day’s routes. “Last year we were probably a driver-and-a-half short a day. I could count on one hand the number of days I didn’t have to drive,” he says. Wilson is working on getting medical benefits for his employees, who currently have a 401(k) plan and receive various incentives throughout the year. Through the parks system, Wilson donates transportation services to his son’s baseball team. “My father did it for me when I was playing ball,” he explains.

Related Topics: Great Fleets

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