Great Fleets Across America, Part V

Posted on October 1, 2001

Sturgis, S.D.

Fleet 50 buses
Students transported daily 700
School districts 3
Schools 11

Keeping his fleet of 50 school buses in tip-top shape is a high priority for Einar Mortenson, who, along with his wife Gail, owns and operates Sturgis Bus Co. as well as a fleet of seven motorcoaches and a travel agency. Mortenson says he gets this mechanical inclination from his days of employment at UPS. “They have one of the best preventive maintenance programs in the world,” he says. “Also, that’s the way I was raised.” Mortenson uses his 50 buses to service contracts at three districts: Sturgis School District, Hill City School District and Custer School District. He has had the Sturgis contract since the mid ‘80s, when he and his wife bought Sturgis Bus Co. One of the former owners, Ernie Miller, drives for Mortenson. “He’s 76 years old and probably the best man for the kids in the school system,” he says. What impresses Mortenson is Miller’s involvement with his passengers. “He follows their sports. He doesn’t just sit there and read a book while he’s waiting.” In fact, Mortenson requires all of his drivers to get involved with the students. For example, when drivers take students on an athletic trip, they’re required to attend the function. “If you’re paying them, you can demand a little more,” he says. For his part, Mortenson drives every day. So he knows what the drivers are going through, although his work day is quite a bit longer. “I’m in the shop at 5 or 5:30 in the morning, and I’m normally the last one to leave, at about 6 or 7 p.m.” In 1995, Mortenson was among the contractors who helped form the South Dakota School Bus Contractor Association. “It was imperative to create an organization that would watch the legislature and be prepared to take action against measures that weren’t in our best interest,” he says. A few years ago, the legislature nearly managed to pass a bill that would have required seat belts on all school buses. “If it hadn’t been for the association, we would probably have seat belt laws today,” he says.


Memphis, Tenn.

Fleet 255 buses
Students transported daily 22,000
Schools served 46
Drivers 211
Driver wages $62 to $71 per day

This is the “Year of the Champions.” Each school year, the Shelby County Schools transportation department adopts a theme and establishes a goal for safety improvement. The push toward the goal is emphasized during in-service training and staff meetings as well as in the department’s monthly newsletter. “Our fleet is composed of individuals with the spirit of champions,” says Transportation Director Mike Simpson. “I’m fortunate that everyone on the staff is dedicated to this operation.” The staff is large, with 211 drivers, 21 special-education bus assistants and eight nurses serving 46 schools and helping to transport 22,000 students to and from school. Drivers and assistants on special-needs buses are trained in CPR and also receive child-specific training for medical needs, physical disabilities or behavioral problems. In addition, Simpson says a medical emergency transportation protocol was developed during the 2000-01 school year. A half-day training session was held for all drivers, and more training is scheduled this year. To encourage safety, the department recognizes any of the district’s five bus lots that has an accident-free month with a green safety ribbon, a certificate and a trophy topped with a gold school bus. In addition, Simpson says the lot with the best safety record for the year is honored during the following year’s first staff development activity. “There’s also a banner displayed that lets people know that the bus lot was the safest of the year,” he says. Simpson says the transportation department has strong ties to the community and annually participates in several community service activities. For example, the department provides buses each year for field trips to a summer camp program sponsored through the Memphis and Shelby County Schools Homeless Children and Youth Program. He says the children who attend the camp live in a housing project in a remote area of the county and would not otherwise be able to participate. Drivers also volunteer to shuttle spectators to the FedEx-St. Jude Golf Classic each year. “This is truly the spirit of Tennessee, which is known as the ‘Volunteer State,’” Simpson says.


Taylor, Texas

Fleet 30 buses
Students transported daily 1,500
Schools 7
Staff 47
Driver wages $10.50 to $12.50 per hour
Service area 77 square miles

Building a transportation program from the remains of a contractor-provided service was the challenge that Taylor Independent School District faced in May 2000, when the school board decided to end its contract with Durham Transportation. Jim Brogan, a former Durham site supervisor, agreed to take up the challenge as the district's transportation director, but admits that it hasn’t been easy. “We basically had to start from scratch,” he says. “And morale wasn’t too good at the end of that school year.” Now, with a full school year under its belt, the district’s transportation program is beginning to click. “The first thing we had to do was build morale,” Brogan says, explaining that approximately 95 percent of the staff was absorbed from Durham. “We did everything we could to make the transition as easy as possible.” They must have done something right. Over the summer, the district lost only two of its 33 drivers. “There is no better place to work,” says Elaine Roberts, operations clerk and driver trainer. “Mr. Brogan has pulled this district up by its boot straps.” Determination was the key factor. Although Brogan adopted many of Durham’s training practices and operational procedures, he wanted to implement a program that was tailored to Taylor’s specific needs. “We picked a direction and a goal and started working toward that,” he says. “We want to create the safest and most efficient model in the state of Texas.” The driver training program is an example of a Durham model that is being modified to suit Taylor’s needs. Last summer, Brogan sent Roberts to a train-the-trainer program offered by the Texas Engineering Extension at Texas A&M. She is using her training to “tweak” the existing training system, including the addition of a mentor program that pairs an experienced driver with a trainee for 90 days. The transportation program is a work-in-progress, Brogan concedes. For example, the bus garage is still addressing glitches that have made it difficult to implement a computerized preventive maintenance program. But, overall, the department’s performance has justified the board’s decision. “We’ve pretty much alleviated any fears they had,” Brogan says.


St. George, Utah

Fleet 110 buses
Students transported daily 12,000
Driver wages $12 to $18 per hour

Efficiency is one of the hallmarks of a superior operation. Washington County School District easily meets that standard, with a routing system that maximizes fleet capacity and a maintenance program that sparkles as brightly as the floor, ceiling and walls of the totally white shop. Transportation Supervisor Bill Lundin, who’s been with the district for seven years, says routing efficiency is paramount to the 110-bus operation. “We cut the routes to the bare minimum,” he says. “There’s no door-to-door service here.” His system elicits complaints from some parents who prefer bus stops to be located closer to their homes, but Lundin says the routes are designed to keep costs down. “That’s the only way we can do our job and pay the bills,” he says. Brent Huffman, the state pupil transportation director in Utah, concurs that the district’s routing system is cost effective. “They’ve been one of the front-runners in the state as far as creating routing efficiency, and that saves the taxpayers money,” he says. Lundin says his goal is to keep the buses full, but only with eligible riders. “We’re constantly monitoring to keep all the ineligible kids off,” he says. “At one time, a third of the bus riders were ineligible.” On some “problem routes” eligible riders were issued bus passes, which helped the drivers keep track of the legitimate riders vs. the wannabes. The garage at Washington County School District is painted white -- ceiling, floors and walls. “It’s the cleanest shop you’ll ever find,” Lundin says. It’s more than just clean. For the past seven years, the fleet has received a gold award from the state highway patrol for its sparkling inspection record. The award, Lundin says, recognizes fleets that pass inspections with fewer than 2 percent of their buses found to have any type of defect. Lundin says the fleet’s exceptional performance during the twice-a-year inspections is a tribute to the entire staff. “It starts with the drivers, who let the mechanics know as soon as there’s a problem,” he says. “We wanted to be the best in the state, and I don’t think anyone can top us.”


Franklin Center & Highgate, Vt.

Fleet 13 buses
Students transported daily 1,100
Schools served 3
Drivers 15 (full and part time)
Daily mileage 1,000 miles
Driver wages $18 per trip

In 1978, Marshall Ploof took a job doing custodial work and driving a single route for the schools in Franklin Center and Highgate, Vt. “As the old guys would retire, I’d buy their bus and take over their route,” Ploof says. Today, he and his wife Colette run M and C Transport from their home in rural Vermont, located just south of the Canadian border. The addition of their first special-needs route for the 2001-02 school year has added to Colette’s list of responsibilities. As the driver on this route, she prepared by attending training with special-education professionals. In return, she has seen first hand the difference this route has made in lives of the two students she drives each day, who were previously transported to school in taxis. “The kids are very excited to ride the school bus,” says Colette. In addition to doing most of the light maintenance on his fleet, Marshall trains new drivers in preparation for CDL certification and heads ongoing training programs for all drivers. A specific challenge he cites for the new school year is administrative turnover. “We have a new principal in every building that we work with,” says Marshall. “We push to get to know the administration and have maintained a very good working relationship with the faculties and the school boards, which makes things very nice.” Marshall feels that communication is the key to boosting employee morale. He encourages his drivers to talk to each other and come to him with any problems. “We get together monthly to have meetings and discuss problems and solutions. At the end of the year, we throw a big party. We try to keep it a family atmosphere, while remaining efficient.”


Leesburg, Va.

Fleet 418 buses
Students transported daily 2,300

When asked what makes Loudoun County’s transportation department unique, Transportation Director J. Michael Lunsford cites safety and innovation. “Bus evacuation drills for all elementary and middle school students are run by several teams of drivers,” explains Lunsford. From kindergarten through eighth grade, students are consistently trained in evacuation procedures, making the process almost second nature due to repetition. In addition to active drills, safety education is carried into the classroom. “We provide a vast array of safety materials to all elementary teachers for use throughout the school year,” says Lunsford. These items are used as supplements to standard curricula in subjects like reading and problem solving. Transportation employees are also encouraged to keep safety at the fore of their thoughts. To aid with awareness, a monthly newsletter is published, highlighting safety tips for the current season, identified problem areas and specific laws or regulations. In addition, Loudoun County boasts a 24-hour dispatch center, allowing any driver to contact dispatch, regardless of the time. Other innovations in Loudoun County’s fleet include the creation of a new position called trip driver. “The old way of handling field and athletic trips always stressed drivers to complete their regular run in order to get to the trip assignment,” Lunsford explains. “Routes would have to be broken up in order to make drivers available for trip departures.” By creating the trip driver position, much of this stress has been alleviated. Trip drivers are not assigned regular routes but are contracted to provide trip services. “When available,” says Lunsford, “these drivers will assist in substituting on regular routes, but their first priority is honoring trip requests.” Specific trip buses are also designated and equipped for long distances with 100-gallon fuel tanks, wide seat spacing, air conditioning, stereo systems, heavy suspensions, underside luggage compartments and inside luggage racks. Each trip driver is assigned to a specific trip bus, which allows the driver to become familiar with the particular bus that he/she uses on a consistent basis.


Blaine, Wash.

Fleet 20 buses
Students transported daily 700
Schools served 2
Driver salary $13.50 per hour (starting)
Service area 100 square miles

Way up in the northwest corner of Washington, about a quarter mile from the Canadian border, sits the town of Blaine. “Not a lot of interesting things happen here,” says Carl Wagelie, the transportation supervisor at Blaine School District. Actually, something very interesting happens in Blaine: Wagelie and his staff operate a safe and reliable transportation program with a minimum of fuss and little recognition. For the past seven years, since Wagelie started at the district as a mechanic, the fleet has passed twice-a-year state inspections without a single out-of-service defect. Wagelie is proud of that achievement, especially because he continues to be the district’s only mechanic as well as its transportation supervisor. Wagelie says each of the district’s 20 buses is brought into the garage monthly for a “top-to-bottom” inspection. “I basically do a state inspection on them,” he says. Wagelie learned the value of routine maintenance during his 17-year tenure on commercial fishing boats in Alaska. “When you’re out in the middle of the ocean, you don’t want to have a mechanical breakdown,” he says. But a mechanically sound fleet is only part of the equation. Having a competent staff of drivers is also critical, and Wagelie says he’s fortunate to have just that. “They’re excellent in all ways,” he says. “They’re just a great bunch of people to work with.” Interestingly, three of the district’s buses cross into Canada each day on a 45-minute journey to pick up and drop off students who live in Point Roberts, a small tip of U.S. territory that is only accessible through Canada. Wagelie says the buses must proceed directly to Point Roberts after stopping for a head count at the border. “It would be illegal for us to stop in Canada,” he says. Nearly all of the district’s students attend the same K-12 school, which can complicate matters. It means that some kindergarten and high school students ride the same bus. Wagelie says the mix has worked out fine, except for the occasional “colorful language” uttered by the older kids. “The drivers don’t tolerate any of that stuff,” says Wagelie.


Barboursville, W.V.

Fleet 121 buses
Students transported daily 7,800
Schools 30
Drivers 104
Service area 286 square miles
Driver wages $76.10 per day (starting)

Find the right people, train them thoroughly and help them solve their problems. That strategy works well at Cabell County Public Schools. Leading the effort is Transportation Director Patty Pauley, who is quick to stress that her staff deserves the credit. “Any transportation system is only as good as its people,” she says. “Whatever this department has been able to accomplish is through the people who work for me.” Pauley’s contribution is to ensure that her 100-plus staff members receive as much training as they need. In-service training averages about 40 hours per year (the state mandates a minimum of 18 hours), with a wide variety of offerings. For example, to help drivers handle discipline problems on the bus, she recruited a professor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.V., who specializes in criminal behavior to conduct three half-day training sessions. “Our greatest challenge is maintaining order and discipline on the bus,” she says, adding that the professor provided new insights into the problem. “Different people have different perspectives on things.” Pauley also recruited a SWAT team supervisor to prepare drivers for the scenario in which their bus is taken hostage. “He gave them a general idea of what to expect and talked about how to handle hostage negotiations,” she says. The school district has returned the favor by loaning a bus to the SWAT team annually for hostage-situation drills. Pauley is a big advocate of roadeos and encourages her drivers to enter local, regional and state competitions. Some drivers, she concedes, are intimidated by these competitions. For that reason, she put together an in-house roadeo for training purposes only. Once they get over their initial fears of competing, the drivers discover that “they actually enjoy it,” Pauley says. Driver recruitment and retention has not been a problem. “I screen the driver applicants pretty carefully and let them know exactly what they can expect,” Pauley says. “So I don’t lose many. And I have a wonderful group of people to work with.”


Marinette, Wis.

Fleet 50 buses
Students transported 1,000
Schools served 11
Drivers 50

Tom Westlund, owner of Westlund Bus Lines, started driving a school bus right out of high school, working for a contractor who was a friend of the family. He was also going to college full time and working part time for Red Owl, a grocery store chain. He drove a school bus off and on for the next six years, until January 1977, when his employer decided to sell the 18-bus operation. Though only 25 at the time, Westlund decided to buy. Nine months later, after raising the necessary financing, Westlund became a school bus contractor. Twenty-three years later, Westlund is still a school bus contractor, although he also operates some motorcoach buses and a government-sponsored taxi service. He has expanded the school bus operation to 30 routes, all for the Marinette School District. His company also provides some extracurricular transportation for a school district across the border in Michigan. Westlund has learned much in the past two-plus decades. One of the key challenges has been providing special-education transportation. “It’s a bottomless pit,” he says. “You have to learn by gradual experience.” He credits the Wisconsin School Bus Association (WSBA), the state’s contractor alliance, with being a key resource. The WSBA has also helped with driver training by making available a series of videotapes. “They have helped quite a bit,” Westlund says. The school district plays a critical role in helping drivers manage their passengers. “You need the backing of the schools,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate because our school district has turned things around in the past few years. We’ve got a lot of principals who understand what weÕre trying to do and that makes things a lot easier.” Westlund is a past president of the WSBA, serving for three years in the late 1980s. Since 1989, he has helped organize the WSBA’s annual convention, which draws from 600 to 800 people. Bob Christian, executive director of the WSBA, says Westlund’s involvement in the convention has been nearly indispensable. “I don’t know how I’d do it without him,” Christian says.


Torrington, Wyo.

Fleet 74 buses
Students transported daily 1,000
Schools served 12
Service area 5,250 square miles
Staff 60
Driver wages $10.60 to $12.25 per hour

At many school bus operations, the driver shortage is creating turmoil. At Goshen County Schools, it’s the teacher shortage that is presenting the greatest challenge. That’s because the district’s transportation supervisor, Dave Shaffer, has been conscripted to teach five high school courses, including drafting, exploratory technology and computer applications, due to the teacher shortage. Shaffer, who taught for 17 years before accepting a position in the transportation department four years ago, says his double duty is testing the cohesiveness of his transportation program. “It’s been quite a drain on me, but I’m also concerned about the secretarial staff, the dispatcher, mechanics and drivers,” he says. “They’ve been real troopers about this.” Shaffer feels fortunate that he has an experienced crew of drivers. The average driver has been with the district for six years and some have reached the 25-year mark. “It does help,” he says. “A lot of these kids have known their drivers since they were babies.” Even the most veteran group of drivers, however, needs a supervisor who will be around to field concerns. “Right now, morale is good,” says Shaffer, but he’s worried that his staff will eventually feel neglected. “I’m hoping that the teaching will only last for a semester,” he says. Despite this considerable challenge, Shaffer says the department has much to be proud of. “I believe we have the sharpest-looking fleet in this state or in many other states,” he says. Credit goes to his six-employee maintenance staff, which includes three utility workers who wash both the interior and exterior of the fleet’s 74 buses and perform seat repairs. In addition, his three full-time mechanics do an excellent job. He encourages ASE certification in as many areas as possible. “We make it a priority for them to get training,” he says. Last year, Shaffer implemented a transfer zone system that has helped to reduce the ride times of many out-of-town students by as much as 15 minutes. It’s also helped to reduce traffic in the town of Torrington. “If you get your timing down right, it’s a great thing for the community,” he says.

Related Topics: Great Fleets

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