Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
Pecos Independent Schools, Pecos, N.M.
Students transported: 1,000
Schools served: 3
Average driver wages: $13-$14.64
In the last two years, the bus fleet at Pecos Independent Schools has undergone a metamorphosis. "We've gone from an old, raggedy bus fleet to almost brand new," says Manual Lucero, transportation director who took over in 1999. The oldest bus in the revamped fleet is a 1997 and the newest buses are 2002s.
Getting new equipment wasn't an overnight process. In order to secure funding, Lucero implemented a documentation system that would prove the equipment was needed. "Everything we do in the state of New Mexico comes down to proper reporting," he explains. "But our drivers weren't keeping rosters. They didn't have seating assignments." Once these processes were implemented, the data reflected the district's need and money was secured.
Equipment alone, however, won't solve a struggling department's woes, particularly not when that new equipment faces tremendous wear and tear due to mountainous terrain. For this reason, says Lucero, it's been key to have a top-notch maintenance department. And that the district has, via one ASE-certified mechanic who services the fleet's 15 buses, as well as all district vehicles. "The mechanic has been one of the keys to our success here," says Lucero.
Hand-in-hand with quality equipment and proper maintenance goes driver training. When he came to the district three years ago, Lucero implemented a rigorous ongoing training program to keep his drivers in top professional form. "Before, they were lucky if they got to go to training once a year," he says. A state-certified school bus driver instructor himself, Lucero places great importance on driver education. In fact, he encourages his drivers to become certified instructors. "The more instructors I have, the more knowledge I have in the department. The safety just becomes so great," he says.
The Pecos transportation department is happy to share its expertise and equipment with the surrounding community, helping out in emergency situations. "This past year we've assisted with two major fires by providing bus transportation for firefighters," says Lucero.
Evans-Brant (Lake Shore) Central School District, Angola, N.Y.
Students transported: 3,900
Schools served: 40
Average driver wages: $10-$17
Two years ago, changes in transportation administration at the Evans-Brant (Lake Shore) Central School District left morale struggling. "Buses were dirty and personality conflicts popped up often. Getting even a bit of teamwork was like a trip to the dentist," says transportation director Michael Dallessandro, who came on board in 2000.
Dallessandro and his mechanics sat down with representatives from the New York Department of Transportation (DOT) and reviewed their inspection criteria. This led to the development of what Dallessandro calls a "three-eyed" process. After a mechanic inspects a bus, he passes it off to another mechanic for review. And right before it goes for DOT inspection, a third mechanic or Dallessandro himself gives the bus one last perusal. "We have caught so many things before it's gone to inspection in that way," says Dallessandro. And the proof is in the numbers. Evans-Brant's inspection passing rate has risen from 90 percent to 97 percent over the past two years.
Other changes include the establishment of uniform bus spec's for the entire fleet, which includes white roofs, tinted windows, air horns, dual stop arms, crossing gates, video cameras and automatic tire chains. "The drivers now know that if they're driving one bus to the next, it's going to be very similar in construction and design," explains Dallessandro.
The team has developed an emergency disaster plan that includes what to do if you lose your transportation building or dispatch center, a topic often overlooked in disaster plans. "We carry backup routes in another location. We have cell phones and two-way radios in various district vehicles that could work as a dispatch center if we didn't have our office," he says.
A pre-k and kindergarten classroom safety-training program has been established, and Dallessandro is developing a similar program for middle-schoolers. "It's easy to speak to kindergartners. It's kind of nerve-racking to get up and talk before 200 to 300 eighth-graders," he says.
The biggest change Dallessandro has seen, however, has been in staff morale. He brought in motivational speakers, created a bus driver's appreciation luncheon and has worked side by side with them to secure their trust. "I think where we are today compared to 24 months ago is night and day," says Dallessandro.
Exceptional Children's Transportation, Durham Public Schools, Durham, N.C.
Students transported: 800
The word "exceptional" in the name Exceptional Children's (EC) Transportation describes not only the passengers the operation transports, but also the quality of service it provides. Serving 800 students, the operation provides a full array of services — pre-k, Title I, one-on-one transports for amended educational plans, community outreach, occupational studies and local Special Olympics training.
Durham's EC transportation staff members are, to say the least, dedicated. On-site Transportation Information Management Systems personnel expedite address and route changes on a daily basis. Drivers travel in excess of 1.25 million miles per school year. "The majority of our drivers exceed a normal eight-hour workday," says Donna Hudson, transportation coordinator. "We continually interface with physical and occupational therapists, EC coordinators, administrators, local and national resources and parents to provide the safest 'best practice' means of transportation."
The staff includes certified instructors to offer drivers 22 hours of training annually in crisis prevention, first aid, CPR, blood-borne pathogens, student management, pre-k concerns, wheelchair securement and other safety issues. "We continually strive to exceed expectations with regards to safety and customer service by being committed to the individualized needs of our student population," says Hudson.
With this in mind, the department created a brochure for drivers, parents and teachers called "Guidelines for EC Transportation." The brochure outlines the transportation department's responsibilities, as well as those of the school, students and parents in regard to maintaining safety on the school bus. Durham EC Transportation's handbook was awarded second place (2001) and third place (2000) status in the manual competition at the National Conference on Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers.
Awards on the mantle are a starting point, but are by no means the end. Durham's EC Transportation also produces a newsletter for its employees called "Between the Lines." "We continue to stretch our boundaries, doing more with less, to provide the best to the exceptional students of Durham Public Schools," says Hudson.
Harlow's Bus Service Inc., Bismarck, N.D.
Students transported: 1,236
Schools served: 11
Average driver wages: $9-$11.75
From van-sized vehicles to charter coaches, Harlow's Bus Service Inc. provides transportation to students in buses of all shapes and sizes. With offices throughout North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Idaho, the company provides a special service in Bismarck, N.D., where it has held the transportation contract with the Bismarck Public School District for more than 20 years.
"To make it standing on our own without the school contract would be tough," admitted Jason Hageness, manager of Harlow's Bismarck office. While transportation budgets nationwide have felt the pinch in recent years, Hageness says his company can "pass a lower price along to the school district by consolidating our other transportation services."
The camaraderie and high morale of the drivers is a big priority at Harlow's, and communication is key. "I have an open door policy with all drivers," Hageness explains. "If they have a concern, they are more than welcome to come and talk to me at any time. Drivers feel important when things get taken care of." In addition, drivers can look forward to some perks. "We have a couple of full-time bus cleaners who clean the buses for our drivers whenever they need it," chuckles Hageness. The 10-bay shop also boasts six mechanics (four of whom are ASE-certified) and an automated bus washer.
One success story Hageness points out is Harlow's three-step process for maintaining standards of student behavior. Drivers who write up children for misbehavior pass the incident report on to the transportation supervisor, where it is reviewed and forwarded to the school district. This allows both the school and those responsible for transporting students to agree on a decision about penalties. "Riding the bus is a privilege," maintains Hageness, who also points out that the number of incidents where discipline is required has dropped steadily over the past three years.
While finding drivers is the most difficult challenge for Hageness, he credits his current crew as the backbone of the company. "Our drivers are a group of wonderful people who take pride in what they do. They're what make our business go."
Web site: www.harlowsbussales.com
Olmsted Falls City School District, Olmsted Falls, Ohio
Students transported: 3,500
Schools served: 25
Average driver wages: $16.39
Good staff morale is a key ingredient to a safe and efficient pupil transportation program. One measurement of morale is attendance. At Olmsted Falls City School District, more than half of the transportation staff had perfect attendance during the 2001-02 school year. About 25 percent of the remainder missed perfect attendance by only a couple of days. That's a clear sign that the staff takes pride in its work, says Tim Atkinson, transportation supervisor.
Another sign is the staff's devotion to the community in and around Olmsted Falls, which is located just southwest of Cleveland. One of the bus drivers is a member of the city council, while Atkinson chairs the city's parks and recreation board and is treasurer of the Olmsted Falls Endowment and Alumni Association.
"The relationship between the transportation department and the city benefits the students," Atkinson says. For example, every year drivers and transportation staff members volunteer their time to assist at events such as open houses, the prom and a music festival. In addition, the school district is contracted by the city of Olmsted Falls and Olmsted Township to fuel and maintain their vehicles.
The school district recently purchased Buster the Bus with funds raised by the bus drivers through bake and craft sales and raffles. Community businesses and citizens also donated to the cause. "Buster has become a main attraction at kindergarten orientation, preschool events and several community parades," Atkinson says.
The drivers also merit recognition for their skills behind the wheel. Since 1996, three Olmsted Falls drivers have been named Driver of the Year for the North Region by the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation. During the 2001-02 school year, 98 percent of the drivers maintained an accident-free status.
The department's three mechanics also deserve recognition. For 20 straight years, every bus in the fleet has passed during the annual state highway patrol inspection, Atkinson says.
The head mechanic, Alan Cantrell, is among the few in Ohio certified as a master school bus technician by the Ohio School Bus Mechanics Association, Atkinson adds.
Shawnee Public Schools,Shawnee, Okla.
Students transported: 2,500
Schools served: 8
Average driver wages: $10.50
In 110-degree summer heat and with no air conditioning, Shawnee drivers run as many as three morning and afternoon trips to different schools. The drivers can spend two hours at a time behind the wheel. "We meet them at a central stopping point and hand over iced water bottles," says Bob Williams, director of transportation and distribution. The department does all it can to aid employee morale. "I recently hired one driver back after she'd tested out another district," he says. "She told me our better working conditions and the nice people made her return."
Shawnee's limited budget and constant road improvements have been the biggest obstacles so far this year. It has taken a friendly attitude to create good communication with the city and limit the need for sudden route changes due to unforeseen road blocks. Good community rapport also results in local vendors donating the use of diagnostic equipment to the shop.
Before Williams joined Shawnee's transportation department 11 years ago, the state had, at one point, shut the department down. "No one felt safe about putting their kids on the bus," he says. The fleet was then a quarter of a century old with engines rebuilt three times.
"We're tickled to death, now," Williams says. Their newer fleet consists of Thomas and Blue Bird buses with Ford and International chassis. An in-house mechanic performs routine maintenance. "We keep the buses clean and shiny inside and out," says Williams, who feels attention to detail improves their image. "A dirty bus looks like a bad bus," he says. "Parents trust us now. The number of children in the district isn't growing, yet we have more than twice as many buses as we did when I started here."
Approximately 2,500 of the 4,000 students in the Shawnee school district now ride the bus to and from school. Williams gives a lot of credit to his drivers for winning the trust of the parents and the community.
"During the winter, the children are sometimes as much as two hours late because of icy roads and cautious drivers being safe," Williams says. "But parents accept that."
Web site: www.shawnee.k12.ok.us/transportation/transportation.htm
Laidlaw Education Services, Jefferson, Ore.
Students transported: 485
Schools served: 9
Safety has quickly become a tradition at this Laidlaw branch about 20 miles south of Salem. Since 1997, when Laidlaw purchased the operation from another contractor, only one work injury claim and two preventable accidents have been recorded. "The Jefferson branch has had the fewest claims in the past five years of any Laidlaw branch in the entire north Pacific area," says Daryl Jefferson, branch manager.
Jefferson attributes this accomplishment in part to the driver training program run by Margaret Robbins. "She began as a driver for the previous contractor in 1974, became a driver trainer in 1991 and continues to be one of our most valuable assets today," he says. Robbins is a stickler for safety, providing drivers almost daily with a driving tip for their routes and creating safety posters for the walls of the drivers' room.
"And whenever Margaret is not driving a route, she is out in her own automobile observing the driving practices and behaviors of her drivers," Jefferson says. In June 2000, Robbins was named Driver Trainer of the Year by the Oregon Pupil Transportation Association.
Contributing to this culture of safety is the branch's experienced crew of drivers. Jefferson says 75 percent of the drivers have been employed for more than three years. About one in three (35 percent) have more than 10 years of driving experience at the location.
Jefferson says the impressive retention rate is due to effective recruitment as well as morale-building activities such as an end-of-year trip to Reno, Nev., funded through the collection and sale of newspapers. Other activities include a beginning-of-the-year breakfast, a Christmas potluck and an end-of-year barbeque.
Community involvement is also a high priority. One driver served on the police commission when Jefferson had its own police department, and two other drivers serve as volunteers for the Jefferson Fire Department. Meanwhile, the Jefferson branch is a high-achieving fund-raiser for the Children's Miracle Network, which is sponsored by Laidlaw on a corporate level.
"A small branch can have a large influence on a big company, a small community and on the pupil transportation community as a whole," Jefferson says.
North Allegheny School District, Pittsburgh, Penn.
Students transported: 9,400
Schools served: 55
Average driver wages: $15.70
North Allegheny School District, the second-largest school district in Allegheny County, may take a back seat to Pittsburgh Public Schools when it comes to the size of its student population, but its transportation department sets and exceeds some of the highest standards around.
Transportation Director Roger Botti says several factors put North Allegheny in a league of its own when it comes to pupil transportation. "We've got several programs that help drivers meet the many different day-to-day challenges of driving a school bus," he says.
A mentoring program helps acclimate new drivers to the rigors of the job. "We simply do not place a new driver behind the wheel," Botti says. "We ease them into the job by matching them with a seasoned veteran." For two to four weeks, the experienced driver rides along with the newcomer and helps him or her to "learn the ropes" of being a school bus driver, Botti says.
The department also works to empower its staff through the D.R.I.V.E. committee, which stands for Developing Respect Initiatives and Values for Employees. "The committee has implemented new ideas and concepts over the years, including an incentive program for attendance and safety as well as a safety picnic and awards program," Botti says.
To keep the staff on its toes, the transportation department organized and participated in an emergency preparedness drill involving a simulated school bus accident. The local fire, police and ambulance authorities were involved in the drill. ROTC students role-played the victims and were transported to local hospitals during the simulation. "We were also able to secure a medical-evacuation helicopter to be part of the drill," Botti says.
On the equipment side, the district has transitioned to a transit-style fleet with all of its large buses. "In the opinion of our school board, the transit-style bus provides additional safety when compared to a conventional bus," Botti says. The maintenance staff keeps the fleet in top condition, with an excellent record in state highway police inspections.
Web site: www.northallegheny.org
Laidlaw Education Services, Pascog, R.I.
Students transported: 3,300
Schools served: 10
Average driver wages: $12.53
Security is becoming a key issue in many areas of daily life and that includes school transportation. Laidlaw's branch serving the Burrillville School District has taken up the challenge of ensuring that children are protected from kidnappers.
"We're urging parents to be at the bus stop to greet their children," says Charlotte Gabrielson, manager of the branch. If the parent of a younger child (grades K-3) fails to show up, drivers are instructed to radio in the information and take the child back to school. "We have to stay more alert because of the kidnappings," says Gabrielson.
Greater attention is also being paid to the problem of bullying on school buses. "It's getting to be a lot more common, both on the school bus and the playground," says Gabrielson. To address the issue, the branch arranged for a representative from the state department of education to provide training for her force of 40 drivers.
Gabrielson says her branch has an excellent working relationship with the local police department, which helps not only to maximize security efforts but also to tackle safety concerns such as motorists illegally passing stopped school buses.
"I couldn't ask for better support," Gabrielson says. When an incident occurs and the driver is able to get a license number, she faxes the information to the police department, which then calls the registered owner and, if warranted, mails a warning letter. "If it's a second offense, they will prosecute," she adds.
Gabrielson says she's lucky to have a great group of bus drivers, most of whom are housewives who have lived in the community for several years. "They're a part of the community and they feel that the riders are their children," she says.
"I have very little turnover," Gabrielson adds. "Most of them have been with me for 20 years and are very dedicated to their jobs. I can't say enough nice things about them."
Gabrielson also has high praise for her maintenance staff, which includes three mechanics and a yard person. The fleet's inspection pass rate is close to 99 percent, reflecting the skill and conscientiousness of the garage staff. "They're just super," she says.
Web site: www.laidlaw.com
Rock Hill School District, Rock Hill, S.C.
Students transported: 8,000
Schools served: 21
Average driver wages: $9.00
Transportation Director George Hampton believes that the smartest things are often the simplest things. And he applies this philosophy as much as possible.
For example, to help prevent drivers from leaving students on the bus, Hampton instituted a policy that drivers have to clean their buses immediately after their morning runs. "I was having a problem with dirty buses anyway," he says. "With this new procedure, we get the buses clean and we have the drivers walk to the back to make sure they didn't leave any kids on board."
To help reduce diesel exhaust emissions, Hampton asked drivers to reduce their idling time at schools. A simple strategy, but a long time in the offing, he says.
Hampton says driver morale is generally good, but occasionally dips because of frustrations with rider behavior problems. When spirits are down, Hampton practices his own brand of therapy by bringing in a case of potato chips or cookies. "It helps when the drivers get down," he says.
More traditional morale boosters include bonuses for 40 straight days of perfect attendance ($150) and for a half year with no scrapes on the bus ($50). Hampton also helps to find drivers school-related employment to fill out their eight daily hours such as cafeteria work, hall monitoring and working as special-needs classroom aides.
Hampton is also finding work for drivers within the department as routing assistants and facilities/fueling aides. The routing assistants do the legwork that allows area coordinators to make efficiency improvements. In creating these positions, Hampton says he's discovered some talented drivers among his staff. "It's surprising who's sitting around you all the time," he says. "You can make some discoveries like in a diamond mine."
In partnership with the state government, which maintains all school buses in South Carolina, Rock Hill installed a 10,000-gallon fuel tank at its new centralized bus depot. "They used to have to drive tankers here every day from distant towns to fuel our buses," Hampton says. "We also have a two-vehicle wash bay where mechanics can clean equipment and work during inclement weather. To my knowledge, this is the first maintenance partnership arrangement of its kind in South Carolina."
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