Great Fleets Across America, Part II

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


Akina Bus Service, Kihei, Hawaii

Buses: 10
Students transported: 700
Schools served: 4
Staff: 15
Average driver wages: $14.29

In 1928, Alexander Akina started a transportation company on the island of Maui with a few taxis and a banana wagon used as a school bus. After nearly 75 years of operation under the ownership of the Akina family, the company continues its tradition of providing safe student transportation, though now it does so with a fleet of 10 school buses. One factor that has made Akina a success is its close-knit network of employees and its commitment to family values.

"In Hawaii, you have what is called the 'Ohana,' which means family," says Dennis Levine, general manager. "The Akina Ohana believes that, no matter how many employees it has, everyone is part of the family." Levine says this family attitude goes hand-in-hand with a company emphasis on training.

For drivers, extensive training is provided in the strategy known as reference point driving. The training is based on mental reference points to different parts on the bus and to the driver's position on the road. With these imaginary points in mind, it becomes easier to maneuver a large vehicle with greater precision, says Levine. "Everything you do in a vehicle, whether you realize it or not, you use a reference point. So once you know reference point driving, you can learn to back a bus within one inch of anything without hitting it."

The intense focus on training is also extended to the maintenance department. Because the company does not solely provide school transportation, the technicians must understand how to take care of multiple vehicles, including school buses, motorcoaches, microbuses, vans, sedans and limousines. Akina's two technicians are ASE-certified mechanics in every vehicle classification the company owns.

A strong facility also aids the operation, starting with a 3.3-acre lot and 1,818 square feet of office space. Receptionists and dispatchers are in cell phone and radio contact with every driver, and the shop has a 24-hour on-call mechanic for emergency repairs. Furthermore, Levine says that Akina owns the only vehicle lift on the island capable of raising a full-sized bus high enough that someone can stand under it for repairs. "We've had other companies come and use our lift to have their buses repaired," says Levine.

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Coeur d'Alene School District 271, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Buses: 56
Students transported: 2,800
Schools served: 15
Staff: 60
Average driver wages: $11.50

Probably the greatest challenge to Coeur d'Alene School District 271, while also serving as its biggest point of pride, is the effort that goes into running the special-needs transportation program. After becoming transportation director in 1996, it wasn't long before Carol Brown realized that the special-needs drivers needed more instruction. She decided to start attending the National Conference and Exhibition on Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers.

At the last three conferences, staff members have either competed in or judged the Special-Needs Team Safety Roadeo. In the 2002 show, the district received third place in the country for best special-needs transportation manual. The show has been so helpful that the department developed its own annual roadeo to choose the best drivers within the district. "Everyone in the school district has said that it's been a really great safety tool," says Brown.

Special-needs drivers are not the only ones who deserve credit for the success of Coeur d'Alene's transportation program. Extensive driver training is provided to the entire staff, which is, according to Brown, constantly hungry to learn more. "They are always asking for more training in behavior management, emergency preparedness and behind-the-wheel instruction," says Brown. "The strength of this group of drivers is obvious in the fact that we have had no turnover for the past two years."

The department puts great responsibility in the hands of the drivers, as evidenced by their involvement in the School Emergency Response Plan and the school bus discipline policy. In the emergency response plan, drivers are trained as the first line of defense to protect the passengers. Often with the help of law enforcement, they learn how to conduct evacuations, confront angry parents and deal with weapons and intruders on the bus.

They play a bigger role in the discipline policy. Procedures are set up so that the drivers use their own discretion on what constitutes a disciplinary infraction on the school bus. In fact, in the event of a severe disciplinary problem, the driver has the right to expel a child from the bus permanently. The result, says Brown, is very few behavior problems.

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First Student Inc., Bloomington, Ill.

Buses: 40
Students transported: 3,500
Schools served: 7
Staff: 51
Average driver wages: $21.00

Operating since 1970 as KAL Lines, Ryder Student Transportation and now First Student, the transportation provider to Bloomington Public Schools has had ample time to develop a strong professional relationship in the community. So strong are its ties to the surrounding area that First Student has provided transportation to local businesses, universities, hotels, government and military groups, childcare operations, Head Start programs, camps and church groups. Yet, school transportation has always been its specialty.

"The success of this operation," says Jason Sherman, contract manager for the company, "depends on clear expectations, good communication and teamwork."

Teamwork and communication are best embodied in the operation's open-door policy that encourages school district administrators and transportation staff to work together to solve problems. A transportation handbook has been developed jointly by Bloomington Public Schools and First Student to facilitate this relationship. "The manual was designed to be a resource for district and bus company employees involved in day-to-day transportation functions," says Sherman. "It's a reference guide with quick answers to the most common questions."

First Student also excels in its commitment to technology. Bus routing is kept in a computerized database for easy adjusting. Invoicing, billing and mileage tracking reports are done electronically. The contractor has access to the district's student management computer system and e-mail server. This allows for better communication and problem solving, especially when it comes to assisting parents and students with routing questions. Even student discipline has been improved through technological means.

"We were one of the first operation's to have cameras in all of our buses in the late 1990s," says Sherman. "It was an expensive proposition, but it has paid off in faster resolution of discipline matters and more peace of mind for parents, drivers, administrators and students."

First Student's corporate level has noticed the operation's excellence, too. The location has served as the training site for the company-sponsored Manager-in-Training program for the past four years. The program places manager trainees in a location where they can receive hands-on training and implement skills learned in the classroom.




Lake Central School Corp., St. John, Ind.

Buses: 90
Students transported: 7,000
Schools served: 11
Staff: 108
Average driver wages: $13.00

Every year elementary school students at Lake Central School District look forward to learning about bus safety. What makes learning about safety so enjoyable is the special presentation given in a puppet show format. The program, shown to students attending the district's six elementary schools, was developed by Lake Central driver trainers and Transportation Director Jack Fenstermaker.

"We put together a show with [characters] kids can recognize from popular children's television demonstrating all the safety procedures kids should know," says Fenstermaker. The show features a painted plywood bus with window cutouts, real flashing red lights and a stop arm. During the program, puppet characters act out different safety scenarios such as proper bus-boarding procedures and the importance of staying quiet during stops at railroad crossings.

Fenstermaker says children enjoy the show and have been repeating the catchy safety sayings while on the bus. "Everybody is really quite impressed with the program," he says.

In addition to its focus on safety issues, the transportation department at Lake Central takes great pride in its driver-training program. Currently, four NAPT-certified driver trainers are on staff at the school district, where traditional state-required training is expanded to include familiarizing drivers with different types of disabilities for special-needs routes and teaching drivers how to accurately do a pre-trip vehicle inspection.

Lake Central drivers also benefit from the drivers' association, which allows drivers to provide input on issues such as routing and equipment selection. There is also camaraderie among drivers, some of whom have driven for Lake Central for more than 20 years. "Our bus drivers and aides are very dedicated and hardworking," says Fenstermaker.

Other key members of Lake Central's staff include the maintenance department, where, besides maintaining the 90-vehicle fleet, shop staff still find time to keep up their stellar 18-year record of passing state safety inspections. Composed of one supervisor and three mechanics, the shop staff also works diligently to stay abreast of new technologies while upgrading bus specifications to meet higher standards, such as using fuel-efficient engines that reduce emissions.

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Linn-Mar Community S.D., Marion, Iowa

Buses: 40
Students transported: 3,500
Schools served: 7
Staff: 51
Average driver wages: $17.00

Zero is the lucky number for the Linn-Mar Community School District transportation department. Zero is the number of accidents involving district school buses in the past year. It's also the number of student and staff injuries, lost or missing passengers, equipment breakdowns and severe behavior problems that have occurred over that time.

"The overall dedication and commitment in the Linn-Mar transportation department is just outstanding," says Denny Schreckengast, director of transportation. "We had to have a special lunch or dinner get-together at least three times last year to recognize our accomplishments and show appreciation for this group."

Schreckengast says the exceptional safety record starts with an established and organized department routine that has been developed by a number of long-time district employees who have been teachers or staff members at one time or another. In fact, he isn't ashamed to admit that some of the credit must go to the previous transportation director, Carlyn Wessel, who retired last year. "The previous director had been with the district for 32 years and she really had a great system in place, so I have just tried to carry on the torch," he says.

The backbone of this system is a preventive maintenance program that thrives on well-trained mechanics and top-flight equipment. Two of the three technicians are ASE-certified and have worked for Linn-Mar for more than 15 years. According to Schreckengast, their reputation for superior maintenance is widespread.

"Someone is always already asking for our buses before they even know if we are getting rid of them because they know the great care we take of our equipment," he says. The department normally replaces about two buses every year, using the trade-in value of well-maintained older buses to help offset the costs of purchasing new ones.

Additionally, a local option sales tax in the area has been implemented to help with the management of school infrastructure. Schreckengast says that although the tax has been controversial in the community, it has supplemented the consistent increase in student enrollment and allowed for the procurement of new equipment, keeping the department's performance standards high.

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Dodge City Unified S.D., Dodge City, Kan.

Buses: 46
Students transported: 1,950
Schools served: 12
Staff: 40
Average driver wages: $15.71

With turnover so high, an understated but distinct advantage in this industry is having an experienced staff of drivers who know how to cooperate. Dodge City Unified School District 443 has just such a labor force, in which long-time friendships are the norm among drivers. More than half of them, according to transportation supervisor Katie Sholander-Ruthi, have been tenured with the district for more than five years, and some more than 30 years. Furthermore, she says, "most of them either have children in the district or have raised children in the district."

Aside from being familiar with the community and school system, drivers benefit from an excellent training program based on philosophies developed by renowned transportation consultant Dick Fischer. The course covers everything from mirror usage to student management to safely operating a bus with a blown tire.

Sholander-Ruthi says one of the district's biggest concerns is communication with students on pressing issues, such as loading and unloading safety. "We have a very large Spanish-speaking population and communicating with them is very important. We have to make sure they understand what is expected of them from a safety standpoint," she says.

The district uses several strategies to bridge the communication gap. First, with younger students, a training bus is taken from school to school, where classes receive a hands-on presentation on how to board, ride and get off a school bus safely. A bilingual instructor leads these safety sessions.

Encouraging drivers and other employees through incentive to take language classes is another way Dodge City fights the language barrier. The district's classified development committee offers scholarships or aid to district employees, including drivers, who choose to take workshops, college courses and any education or training that will improve their job performance. The incentives apply to learning a second language. Employees who participate in the program become eligible for promotions.

The transportation department is rounded out by a excellent maintenance staff. "For the last three years, we have passed every state inspection with 100 percent ratings. Absolutely nothing has been found wrong with any vehicle," says Sholander-Ruthi.




Nicholas County Board of Education, Carlisle, Ky.

Buses: 18
Students transported: 800
Schools served: 2
Staff: 20
Average driver wages: $11.80

Thoroughness is a hallmark of the Nicholas County Board of Education transportation department. After nine years as an elementary teacher and 24 years as a principal, Transportation Director Gerald Hammons says of beginning his fourth year in transportation, "I love it. I just love it."

Hammons administers all bus driver training after hours and on weekends. Going above and beyond the eight-hour driving update required yearly in order for drivers to keep their certification in Kentucky, Hammons insists on more. "I do two days of it, so they get a 16-hour update training every year," he explains. "If they miss it, they don't drive. Safety is important." This approach to preparedness has definitely paid off. "A few years ago we were running six or seven major accidents," says Hammons. "Now, we've cut that down to almost nothing."

This same attention to detail has helped in tackling challenges in transporting special-needs children, specifically one who travels with an oxygen tank. By working with individuals from the state department of transportation, Hammons and his staff were able to secure the tank in a way that met state specifications. In addition, an aide is always present with the driver on all special-needs routes.

"These aides are experienced individuals who have been a part of the school system for some time," explains Hammons. "Most work with the special-needs children during the day as well."

A combination of teamwork and technology aids drivers in their task of maintaining a controlled atmosphere while driving. "Our principals back our drivers to the hilt when there are problems," says Hammons. "We have cameras on the buses when we need them. Sometimes we've used those to prove to parents what was going on, and that's very effective."

Hammons emphatically asserts that his drivers are the greatest strength of the operation. "They're a dedicated bunch. They get along really great and they're very conscientious about what they do."




Caddo Parish Schools, Shreveport, La.

Buses: 522
Students transported: 28,000
Schools served: 71
Staff: 707
Average driver wages: $76 per day

Don Toppett had his work cut out for him when he joined Caddo Parish Schools as transportation director two years ago. Buses and other equipment were not up to par, the shop was rife with inefficiencies, driver training lagged behind and morale was struggling.

One of Toppett's first moves was to get the shop in line. Replacing some of the fleet's oldest buses with new ones and improving maintenance practices, he was able to reduce maintenance calls by 50 percent and eliminate a night shift in the shop, while also decreasing overtime costs by $400,000. "I've been able to turn that money around and put it into equipment for the buses and the shop," says Toppett.

That new equipment includes strobe lights, crossing arms, two-way radios, video cameras and emissions control devices. "We put exhaust turndowns on all of our buses and re-did the door seals on the back because of the national concern about exhaust fumes," says Toppett.

Drivers in Caddo Parish, which covers 869 square miles of mostly rural territory, attend two four-hour inservices each year, in addition to a new eight-hour defensive driving course. Pre-hire screening, says Toppett, is key to finding professional, hard-working people. "I interview every driver personally before I hire them," he says. New-hire training has been bumped up from the 30 hours mandated by the state to 60 hours.

The newest addition to the training regime is an eight-hour remedial driving course for drivers who get a ticket or have an accident. Every school bus sports a bumper sticker with the department's phone number for motorists to call in questions or concerns. "We investigate every complaint. If a driver gets more than three of those, they're required to attend our eight-hour remedial training course," says Toppett.

Getting the operation up to par was only the start for Toppett. He's leading the operation to the head of the pack with cutting-edge technology. Caddo Parish is transitioning to a GPS-based routing system that works collaboratively with handheld GPS units that map out streets.

Despite the strides the operation has made since Toppett joined the team, he's reticent to take credit for the improvements. "It's not the director who's doing all of this. It's everybody," he says.




Portland Public Schools, Portland, Maine

Buses: 35
Students transported: 2,700-3,000
Schools served: 19
Staff: 40
Average driver wages: $11.05-$15.00

The personnel at Portland Public Schools' (PPS) transportation department "walk the walk" when it comes to achieving the goal of their mission statement — "Setting conditions for student success." Over the last five years they've made strides in every aspect of student transportation to accomplish a complete revitalization of the department, which was in mediocre shape when transportation director Kevin Mallory came on board in 1996. "With an aging fleet, costs were skyrocketing, quality controls for repairs were non-existent, preventive maintenance was limited, vehicles failed state inspections on a regular basis, breakdowns were numerous and overall fleet condition was poor," says Mallory.

One of the operation's chief weaknesses was in bus maintenance. As part of the improvement plan, vehicle histories were established and software was purchased for tracking vehicle cost, warranty issues, lifecycle issues and preventive maintenance needs. Small maintenance jobs, such as seat repairs and light bulb replacement, were assigned to drivers with mechanical skills rather than to outside vendors. A pressure washer was purchased and drivers were given schedules for washing buses themselves, which eliminated the need for an outside vendor. These and other changes contributed to a reduction in maintenance expenses from a high of $246,00 in 1996/97 to a low of $131,854 in 1999/2000.

Improved maintenance practices will only get you so far with a highly aged fleet. "In 1996, the Portland Public School bus fleet was one of the oldest in the state," says Mallory. Over the course of the last five years, the district invested more than $1 million in replacing old buses, reducing the average vehicle age to five years. New buses include dual stop arms, electric doors, air suspension seats, crossing arms, electric mirrors, antilock brakes, dual escape hatches and more.

The money PPS saved on bus maintenance was channeled into a new transportation facility with ample parking. This saved the district $39,000 per year in rent that was previously being paid for fleet storage. The new facility includes administrative offices and a driver's room/training area.

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Carroll County Schools, Westminster, Md.

Buses: 364
Students transported: 26,202
Schools served: 56

The transportation department at Carroll County Schools services 40 schools in the county and 16 special-education schools outside the county, traveling more than 6,000,000 miles per year. The county school system has seen continual growth over the last decade, with many years exceeding 1,000 additional students. "One of our greatest challenges is to maintain our great safety record while contending with a tremendous increase in population and traffic," explains transportation director James Doolan.

The fleet servicing Carroll County Schools is primarily contracted, using 78 different contractors who own 341 of the 364 total buses. The 12-person office staff at Carroll County's transportation base are responsible for routing and scheduling all of these buses, and the personnel department oversees more than 600 drivers and attendants.

The operation's three driver instructors, along with administrators, create dynamic, informative driver-training lessons that have been commended in the last two performance audits by KPMG. They have also developed a Transportation Services Accident Review Committee that has been used by the Maryland State Department of Education as a teaching model for other operations. Any property damage, including a scratch, is considered an accident and is reviewed by a committee of transportation staff, police and school bus drivers. All drivers with preventable accidents receive written letters outlining what they should do in the future to prevent an accident, and any with preventable accidents involving appreciable damage or personal injury are required to go through a retraining program.

The transportation department works closely with the state contractor's association to ensure fluid communication and works hand-in-hand with law enforcement and other government entities to ensure bus safety. The Maryland State Police assign a trooper to be a liaison to the transportation department. Recently, the department has worked with the police on creating a video on school bus stop safety. "This video will be distributed to all public transportation departments and police agencies throughout the state of Maryland," says Doolan.

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Related Topics: Great Fleets

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