Great Fleets Across America, Part I

staff editors Steve Hirano, Sandra Matke, Joey Campbell and Janna Starcic, with contributions fro
Posted on October 1, 2002

This year's competition was perhaps the toughest yet. Operators nationwide are coming up with innovative ways to address the pressing issues of the day — budget shortfalls, staffing deficiencies and behavior management challenges, to name a few. The following 38 pages are filled with strategies used by 50 exemplary fleets across the U.S. for promoting safety, efficiency, innovation and morale.

We hope you enjoy reading them and that next year you'll be on these pages as one of SBF's Great Fleets Across America.



Tuscaloosa City Schools Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Buses: 69
Students Transported: 7,500
Schools Served: 22
Staff: 90

After contracting school bus services for five years, from 1995 to 1999, the Tuscaloosa City School District decided it would be better suited to handle its own school transportation operation. Thus began a department makeover that saw the purchase of 68 new school buses, the hiring of an entirely new transportation staff and a complete stop-by-stop routing overhaul. The success of the district's decision to take over bus service has become apparent.

"Before, the school system would want something done one way and the private company would want it done another way," says Steve Terry, director of transportation. "Now, we are all on the same page and everyone is working for the same common goal."

At the core of the successful turnaround is a happier, better-paid staff of bus drivers. When the district assumed control of the operation, drivers received immediate 25 percent salary increases, as well as medical, dental and hospitalization benefits. A renovation of transportation facilities, highlighted by new furniture, vending machines and a freshly painted break room, has led to higher driver morale. Further, extra classroom and behind-the-wheel training sessions, instructional videos, guest speakers and annual re-certification help keep their skills sharp.

Says Terry, "Drivers are very important to the success of an operation. If you show your support to your drivers by providing opportunities to learn and letting them know you will do anything possible to help them, it definitely improves their productivity."

The training and high morale are necessary at Tuscaloosa City Schools because the district places more responsibility in the hands of its drivers than many operations. Due to staggered bell times, most drivers run double routes. They are also charged with keeping detailed information on the students who ride their buses, including a list of assigned students and copies of every rider's student identification card.

The district is also committed to acquiring up-to-date equipment and facilities. Video cameras are installed on every bus, and eight buses have air-conditioning systems and wheelchair lifts. Strobe-light-equipped stop arms are common in the fleet. Over the summer, the bus lot was re-paved and a new bus wash was constructed.




A.B.G. Bus Lines, Auke Bay, Alaska

Buses: 40
Students transported: 1,750
Schools served: 9
Staff: 54
Average driver wages: $13.50

If there is a characteristic that permeates every facet of school transportation at A.B.G. Bus Lines, it's the weather. The long, cold winters are tough on the drivers and technicians who operate and maintain vehicles at all Alaskan school bus operations, but A.B.G. must also face the wetness and unpredictability of a mountainous, coastal region.

"It dips below freezing then comes back up, leaving snow followed by gallons of water," says Greg McLaughlin, office manager. "We also face a barrage of everything from ice and snow to deep puddles and avalanches."

Coping with such a tricky, and dangerous, environment takes strategy and team effort. For instance, the fleet equips its buses with what is known as a standard Alaskan package — a collection of products such as auxiliary heaters, frost plugs and tire chains to battle the wintry weather. An experienced, ASE-certified maintenance staff is equally crucial. According to owner and transportation manager Eric Lindegaard, the A.B.G. maintenance program is "an exemplary model for the entire state."

Another area in which A.B.G. excels is communication, both internally with its staff of drivers and with authorities and the local government. 'We are always in touch with the department of transportation to find out where roads are passable and where they are not passable, where they are maintained and where they are not," says McLaughlin. Communication is also important for driver training, he adds.

In fact, Lindegaard says that driver training is a strong suit of the operation. Drivers receive instruction in 18 minimum standards for school bus drivers, as well as intensive training for special-needs and loading/unloading safety, which is a topic of major concern at A.B.G. because of low visibility in harsh weather. The operation provides district-wide curb-to-curb transportation for all special-needs and pre-school children.

Lindegaard says that open channels of communication, school bus roadeos, potluck dinners and consistent pay increases keep the family of employees at A.B.G. happy and productive. "Our biggest strength," he says, "is that we have a very conscientious and concerned team of people who are working together for a safer community."

At press time, Laidlaw Education Services completed its acquisition of A.B.G. Bus Lines.



Phoenix Union High School, District 210, Phoenix

Buses: 50
Students transported: 600
Schools served: 18
Staff: 77

Under the experienced leadership of Tom Piowarsy, division manager of operations and transportation, Phoenix Union High School District is able to run a reliable transportation program, despite the fact that all 600 students it transports have special needs. The impressive safety record of the operation has not gone unnoticed.

"The Department of Public Safety (DPS) office never receives complaint calls from angry parents or citizens regarding Phoenix Union drivers or school buses," says Vicki Barnett, supervisor of student transportation with the Arizona DPS. "In the years I have known Mr. Piowarsy, he has run a transportation department that anyone could be proud of."

Piowarsy's job responsibilities are diverse. Aside from heading the transportation department, he manages the entire school maintenance operation, night security, driver training and facilities. He is also on the board of directors for the Arizona School Board Association (ASBA) and is responsible for developing maintenance and transportation training programs for school districts throughout the state.

All these duties, Piowarsy says, help make him a better manager of the transportation department. "I think my other responsibilities help me because I am around so much, and people are aware of me being here. So if they have any questions, they feel confident to ask me."

Despite the heavy workload he shoulders, Piowarsy says that the strength of the operation is the personnel who work for it. The transportation department has initiated a customized training program emphasizing driving skills, seat belt usage, communication, special-needs student management and overall safety. Staff camaraderie is strong due to Employee of the Month and Employee of the Year awards, plaques for recognition and a birthday card program that puts a card in the hand of each employee on his or her birthday.

Additionally, because Piowarsy manages more than just the transportation department, employees from other departments are encouraged to come to the transportation department's frequent safety meetings, which cover topics that he comes across in his work at the state level. "My experience with ASBA has allowed a great deal of information to exchange between our district and other districts from around the state," says Piowarsy.




Sheridan Public Schools, Sheridan, Ark.

Buses: 45
Students transported: 3,500
Schools served: 6
Staff: 52

About 30 miles south of Little Rock, the state capital, lies the Sheridan Public School District. The success of the Sheridan transportation program is a reflection of the strong dedication and commitment of its employees, starting at the top with influential and active leadership.

"Sheridan's fleet covers a large area with very few problems," says Mike Simmons, coordinator of school transportation for the Arkansas Department of Education. "Their transportation director and dispatcher are very involved in the Arkansas Association of Pupil Transportation (AAPT) and the state's driver training program."

Rhonda Harris, the district transportation coordinator and driver trainer, is the current president-elect of the AAPT. When she takes over as president next year, she will become the first female president in the association's history and the only woman from Sheridan to ever be elected to the AAPT board of directors. Her contributions, as well as Transportation Director Dwight Simpson's, to the pupil transportation industry have been well noted by school districts and operations around the state.

The department accomplished a feat last year by staying accident-free for the entire school year. For an operation running 45 buses daily and between 300 and 350 activity and field trips annually, that is an impressive statistic. Harris attributes this achievement to a focused employee-training program.

Every year all drivers, mechanics and substitutes must complete a two-day in-service training session, covering topics such as bus backing, defensive driving, mirror usage and special-needs instruction, says Harris. Pre-trip inspections, the handling of restraint systems and student behavior management are also heavily emphasized.

Sheridan has managed to maintain a high quality of transportation service despite the fact that budget cuts made by the state of Arkansas have sliced into the district's operating funding to the tune of approximately $500,000. One of the items cut was the state-approved "High Cost Transportation Fund," which provided extra money for employees and equipment. The budget shortfalls have made driver recruitment and retention more difficult, but Sheridan officials claim that the district is dealing with the same problems as every other school transportation program in the nation.




Kings Canyon Unified S.D., Reedley, Calif.

Buses: 62
Students transported: 4,052
Schools served: 15
Staff: 70
Average driver wages: $12.00-17.31

Covering elevations from 320 feet to 6,500 feet above sea level, from mountainous areas to lush farmlands, Kings Canyon Unified School District is a stalwart student transportation provider to thousands of families throughout a 600-square-mile area. In fact, the community depends on the district transportation department in several ways.

Aside from servicing the needs of 15 schools, Kings Canyon handles transportation for the Valley ROP (regional occupational program), several local childcare facilities, the Fresno County Sheriff's Department's DARE program and various summer camps. The district also travels nearly 60,000 miles in activity and field trips annually.

The operation feeds off its community involvement. During the turn of the millennium, the transportation department took a high school marching band with 400 students and 100 chaperones to the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif., and the community generated $100,000 for the trip. "When we returned, after four days, that wasn't the Reedley High School band; that was our department's band," says John Clements, director of transportation. "We have a great sense of ownership and pride in what we do."

The buses are housed at five sites but maintained at one terminal, which features eight standout technicians and a fleet manager working two shifts. The shop staff designed, engineered and constructed its own service truck for road breakdowns and off-site repairs. Additionally, Kings Canyon technicians have maintained school buses for Fresno County Schools, Clay Elementary School and Reedley College.

Says Clements, "The maintenance staff is really proactive in finding potential problems, preventing breakdowns and keeping up with the newest technology." In addition, shop staff and drivers work together to decorate a bus for the Reedley Fiesta Day Parade each year. The result: First place in the parade for three straight years.

The department has been practicing and preaching positive attitude. "We recognize that we spend 75 percent of our waking adult hours at work," says Clements. "So if weÕre going to be here, then we should choose to have a good time, be positive and safely deliver our customers where they need to be."




Poudre School District, Fort Collins, Colo.

Buses: 164
Students transported: 14,000
Schools served: 46
Staff: 256
Average driver wages: $12.34

Despite being located in one of the more populous counties in the state of Colorado, Poudre School District bus drivers still take the time to get to know the students who ride their school buses.

"Even though we transport a large number of students, there is still a small-town feeling in our school district, and the drivers know all the kids personally," says Tom Chaffin, director of transportation.

Driver training in the Poudre transportation department is brimming with speakers and sessions on student behavior and managing student attitudes. The emphasis is placed on getting drivers to learn the names of their passengers and to take an interest in their personal lives. Says Chaffin, "We are the first people they see each morning, so we really are the ones who set the direction of their day."

The operation has set up a cooperative venture with the sheriff's department and the police force called the "I walk/ride to school safely" program. It's advertised in the local papers and school newsletters before the start of each school year. It involves drivers, instructors, police officers and Buster the Bus holding meetings in advance of the school year, during which all first-year students are taught how to ride the school bus and how to walk to school safely.

"The program has drastically improved safety because kindergartners are not afraid to get on the bus on the first day of school, and parents are more relaxed about their children," says Chaffin.

The program isn't the only capacity in which Poudre School District works closely with community members. The police and sheriff's departments, the local Red Cross, the city traffic office and the county transportation office all view the school district as an open resource for information and a ready ally in an emergency. According to Chaffin, the level of professionalism and accuracy demonstrated by the district's bus drivers in reporting problems on the road has been set so high that no one questions their recommendations. "They just go out and work on it," he says.

Web site:




Laidlaw Education Services, Stamford, Conn.

Buses: 127
Students transported: 9,300
Schools served: 31
Staff: 160
Average driver wages: $18.00-21.45

At Stamford Public Schools, Laidlaw Education Services has pulled off a 180-degree turnaround of the district's student transportation program. According to Ronald Tymula, general manager at Laidlaw, only a few years ago the operation suffered from low worker morale, high rates of absenteeism and tardiness, a lack of well-trained drivers and myriad other problems stemming from these issues. Now, as a result of a 72 percent increase in driver wages, as well as several other key changes, the program has full employment, improved driver training practices and much lower absenteeism.

"Stamford has always been a difficult operation because it's in an affluent part of the county and it was always hard to find drivers to work for the old wages," says Tymula. "After partnering with the school district, the pay raise and weekly attendance bonus increases have really made the difference for us."

The district and contractor began working together to find a solution to the transportation staffing problem more than a year ago. After bringing in a third-party consultant, it was decided that an upgrade in employee incentives would be the best course of action. So officials from both sides collaborated to ratify a new pay scale. Transportation officials for the district put together a proposal for the school board, and Laidlaw devised a plan to allow increased revenues from a full staff to cover the cost of higher salaries. The school district and Laidlaw then partnered to each cover half of a driver pay raise, which increased daily performance bonuses from $6.75 to $25.

"The total teamwork effort between the school district and Laidlaw is what makes this operation work," says Steven Schneider, director of transportation for Stamford. The relationship between Schneider and top Laidlaw officials is so strong that they communicate multiple times a day with Nextel direct connect.

Through this partnership, the incentives were also improved for the maintenance staff. Performance bonuses are granted periodically, and an annual bonus is provided based on training advances and reaching higher levels of certification. The end result of both driver and shop staff incentives improvements has been superior morale, attendance and performance.

Web site:




Brandywine School District, Wilmington, Del.

Buses: 89
Students transported: 8,000
Schools served: 18
Staff: 95
Average driver wages: $14.00

A 5-year-old school-choice program is one of the many challenges for Brandywine School District's transportation program. Students can attend schools outside their home area, allowing them access to programs such as high school ROTC not offered at their nearest school. With little notice of student choices, though, route planning can be difficult. The district is brainstorming solutions. One strategy used in the past was to move from two- to three-tier routes, which helped to reduce the number of buses on the road from 102 to 89.

Open communication is the department's theme. School newsletters carry articles on transportation, and parents can go online to find bus stops. Transportation supervisor Jeff Viar is always available to answer parent or employee concerns. This willing attitude will aid Viar in tackling the challenges of the next several years — a 5,000-employee corporation is moving into the district, likely creating the need for more buses, drivers and routes.

The average age of Brandywine's buses is four years. "We have computer equipment and software to troubleshoot electrical problems," says Viar of his five-mechanic on-site shop. Buses are equipped with two-way radios and cell phones. Last year, three buses were purchased with integrated child seats for smaller children. Most school-age special-needs students are integrated onto regular routes.

Sixty percent of Delaware's population falls within the county served by Brandywine. "That means lots of traffic," says Viar. The district has increased its in-service training, and driver-caused accidents were down from last year. Viar and his assistant drive some of the 405 routes, too. "The bus drivers see us out there supervising," he says. "It lets them know we know what's going on, and we're nearby if anyone needs help."

The district also uses routing software. "We never assign a new stop without a site check of traffic and kids' safety." Every day, Viar leaves his office proud of the service his department performs. "We did it again," he says, thinking of the 8,000 children who arrived home safely. And the next day, he, his mechanics and his 89 well-trained bus drivers do it all over again.

Web site:




Osceola County School District, Kissimmee, Fla.

Buses: 250
Students transported: 20,000
Schools served: 38
Staff: 325
Average driver wages: $15.82

In an area where tourism is fueled by Walt Disney World and Sea World, competition for bus drivers is fierce. At one point, the transportation division of the Osceola County School District needed to analyze the market and make salary and benefit changes to become more competitive. Now, Jim Beekman, director of transportation, says, "We're like a family."

The ability to develop good solutions in a pinch has come in handy since Osceola has been officially named the fastest-growing school district in Florida. "Last year, we added 16 buses to accommodate 30 additional routes," says Beekman. "Five new schools were added this year. And next year we anticipate another four or five."

When asked how they plan for such changes, Beekman teases, "Tons of hours and lots of coffee." But it's not just the rate of growth that keeps the department on its toes. The district school year begins in early August, while many relocating families are accustomed to a post-Labor Day school start. "They don't pre-register," says Beekman. After buses and routes are in place for nearly a month, a sudden influx of late starters requires more buses and quick route alterations to ensure everyone has a seat.

With such rapid growth, Osceola County drivers are careful not to lose sight of individual student needs. Driver fundraisers provide medicine, eyeglasses and holiday toys to needy kids. Many buses participate in the schools' Accelerated Reader (AR) program. Students borrow books from the driver to read en-route, meaning quieter bus rides while kids pursue a positive activity. "It's been successful," says Beekman. "We want to expand the program." The district is also checking specifications to add video monitors to the county's 65 special-education buses.

In the spring, Osceola's transportation department moved into a new, 58,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility to serve their in-house mechanics and 75-hour training and recruiting programs. A highlight of the facility is the modern fuel island, which electronically integrates with two other fueling sites and can be run by back-up generator for the county's emergency fueling during a hurricane.




Henry County Public Schools, McDonough, Ga.

Buses: 250
Students transported: 27,000
Schools served: 37
Staff: 379
Average driver wages: $12.00

Good, solid leadership in an operation is important. But at Henry County Public Schools, hands-on experience may be the most valuable quality a school transportation manager can possess. Among the seven-member staff of directors, assistant directors and route supervisors, all are state-certified driver trainers and CDL-holding bus drivers. They can frequently be found driving routes, leading training sessions or interacting with the driver force in the employee lounge.

"How can you expect your employees to do things you wouldn't do?" asks Beverly Skipper, director of transportation. "In order to be a good director or assistant director, you need to get out in the field and see what the drivers go through every day.

"In a rapidly growing area like Henry County, the strong driver force is critical to success. According to Skipper, a major goal is to get drivers to understand and act like professionals, especially considering the amount of over-the-road and classroom training they endure. "We really want the public to know that our drivers are educated and know what they are doing," she says.

In fact, retired teachers, coaches and principals make up a large percentage of Henry County's driver force. Retirees from major Atlanta-based corporations such as BellSouth and Delta Airlines also make up a strong portion of the staff.

Of course, even a generally well-educated driver force will have plenty of questions driving in a 456-square-mile district swarming with traffic. In response, the department established the Transportation Improvement Committee, which meets monthly and is attended by principals and administrators from various schools in the district.

"Concerns of both the transportation department and the schools are shared so that all of us as a group can work on the areas that need to be improved or corrected," says Skipper. "We set it up mainly to give drivers some school representation."

The department is rounded out by a stable maintenance shop, featuring 10 mechanics, a shop foreman, a parts manager and a comprehensive software program that handles work orders, inspections, inventory and more. A rigid internal inspection schedule and parts re-order system keeps vehicle downtime at a minimum.



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