Great Fleets Across America, Part V
(South Dakota-Wyoming)

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


B-J School Buses Inc., Scotland, S.D.

Buses: 40
Schools served: 8
Staff: 50

Like many smaller contractor operations, B-J Buses is a family business. President is Rick Meyer, vice president is his 22-year-old son, Nathan, and Rick's wife, Diane, is the office manager.

The company goes back four generations, says Rick Meyer. His grandfather got started in school transportation in the 1940s, and personalized, hands-on service has kept the company in business.

"Providing excellent service is our goal," says Meyer. B-J Buses has benefited from referrals from customers when other school districts are looking to privatize. "Superintendents have been very satisfied with us and pass the word along," says Meyer.

Not all is rosy, however. Budget-cutting strategies at school districts are a constant threat because school buses are an easy target. "School districts are up against the wall," Meyer says.

Meyer has seen some cuts in activity trips and shuttles, but so far has avoided the elimination of service. "One of our school districts intended to cut all the routes but then reversed its decision before the start of the school year," he says. The school board's change of heart was due to a realization of the value of busing and the complaints of parents, Meyer says.

Running school buses in South Dakota can be a challenge not only because of funding cutbacks, but also because there's no state director of pupil transportation. "That's been frustrating because there's no clearinghouse for information," says Meyer. "The buck doesn't stop anywhere."

As president of the South Dakota School Transportation Association, Meyer serves as a resource for fellow school bus operators, but is forced to spend most of his energy keeping his own operation up to speed.

The company runs 40 buses from five sites, servicing eight districts. Drivers are a mix of retirees and farmers looking for additional income. "I constantly tell our drivers that the only product we have is safe transportation," Meyer says. "And they take that seriously."

To help keep drivers motivated, B-J Buses offers a monetary reward program that's tied to accident-free driving and attendance. Meyer also encourages his drivers to provide input on all aspects of the operation. "I like to hear from them on a daily basis," he says.




Metro Nashville Public Schools, Nashville, Tenn.

Buses: 585
Students transported: 48,111
Schools served: 124
Staff: 530
Average driver wages: $14.32

Transporting 48,000 students within a two-and-a-half-hour window each morning and afternoon is a robust challenge even when conditions are perfect. Road construction and unanticipated traffic congestion just add to the excitement. "It's really amazing what we do," says Transportation Director Keith Phillips, who is making a concerted effort to minimize the excitement this year.

To that end, Phillips says the operations section has implemented Edulog software that has optimized routing and enabled the department to send letters to parents with the location of bus stops and times for pick-ups and drop-offs. "It's worked really well," Phillips says. "The people at Edulog told us that we provided exceptionally clean data, which facilitated the process."

The department is also revamping its driver-training program. "We provided good training in the past," Phillips says, "but we didn't have a defined structure or standards." What's needed, he says, is a series of checks and balances to ensure that drivers are fully prepared before they start transporting students. In-service training has been quite successful, with about 90 percent participation.

To improve maintenance efficiency, the department collaborated with an Atlanta-based consultant called TCI to create an incentive program that encourages each mechanic to complete at least 85 percent of his tasks within a standardized time frame. This flat-rate plan has helped to improve productivity and reduce vehicle breakdowns — with a much smaller maintenance staff.

"We're turning out better work with 21 staff members than we did three years ago with 43 people," says Ken Batey, shop manager. He explains that mechanics can earn up to $5,000-per-year bonuses for performing 85 percent of their jobs under the flat-rate plan (both individually and as a team), having perfect attendance, obtaining ASE certification and receiving 40 hours of technical training.

This new maintenance program has not only improved productivity but also bolstered morale, Batey says. "The men are happier than they have been in years, even though there's a greater workload," he says. "The men receive more respect from management, and management receives more respect from the men."




Brownsville Independent S.D., Brownsville, Texas

Buses: 261
Students transported: 20,000
Schools served: 50
Average driver wages: $8.75

Radical changes have been implemented in the transportation department by empowering drivers, monitors, mechanics and clerical staff to make decisions as part of a site-based management committee. "It has been a great process to watch," says Brenda Fernandez, transportation administrator. "It stops the claims that the administration makes all the decisions."

Fernandez, who is starting her fourth year in transportation, spent seven years as a high school principal at the district before agreeing to take on the challenge of running the bus operation. "I had no idea what I was in for," she says.

What Fernandez discovered was that the transportation department was awash in dissatisfied drivers who "saw administrators as the enemy." She didn't back down. To help the staff solve problems internally, Fernandez formed a site-based committee to give drivers, monitors and other employees a voice in driver hiring, bus spec'ing, setting goals and objectives and staff development. And she gave them the latitude to make mistakes — and learn from them.

"Through site-based administration, the atmosphere has shifted 180 degrees," Fernandez says. "People who used to be angry are now helping out with things like interviewing driver applicants and spec'ing buses."

To understand the concerns of her drivers, Fernandez got her CDL in her first year in transportation. "I decided to roll up my sleeves and get involved," she says. Driving a few routes helped her to understand the time pressures and safety concerns that her drivers face. "I would have been missing a lot if I hadn't gotten my CDL," she says. "And I think the drivers were proud of me for doing that."

In addition to staff empowerment, Fernandez is also a big believer in technology. She plans to install GPS systems on 10 buses this year, but eventually would like to add magnetic ID card readers and even bio-recognition systems. The bus garage already has gone to a paperless system, and the operations section uses Transfinder routing software and a Web-based discipline referral system. "We may not be the fanciest building from the outside, but we are using a lot of technology," Fernandez says.

Web site:




Iron County School District, Cedar City, Utah

Buses: 67
Students transported: 3,200
Staff: 68
Average driver wages: $14.89

Preparing drivers and buses for the demanding task of transporting children safely and efficiently to and from school each day is a top priority at Iron County School District in southwest Utah. But the safety equation also includes preparing children to play their proper role in the daily routine.

To that end, Iron County's transportation department takes great pains to ensure that students are provided with early training in bus safety, according to Danny Cowan, transportation director.

For this training, all kindergartners and first graders are bused to the bus garage, where they are taught safety practices by Barney the Bus as they are led to the demonstration area. There, a bus is parked within a painted danger zone. "The training instructors teach the children how to safely get on and off the bus and where to walk around the bus so they can be seen by the driver," Cowan explains. "They're also taught how to safely cross in front of the bus." To add a personal touch to the proceedings, the children are then shown video footage of their ride to the bus garage, with description of good and bad behavior.

For an understanding of how the bus works, the youngsters are then shown the underside of a bus while mechanics explain some of the equipment, such as the brakes and snow chains. On their return to school, they are instructed in safe rail-crossing procedures.

The safety-training program has a lasting impact. "We have had positive feedback from students who have grown out of these age groups as to the things they learned during this training," Cowan says.

Weekly training sessions with drivers and mechanics add to the safety margin. "The topics range from safe stop crossings to how to detect mechanical problems during pre-trip inspections," Cowan says, adding that the fleet traveled more than 800,000 miles last year but was involved in only three minor accidents.

Aiding this cause, Cowan says, is a comprehensive inspection program designed to catch potential mechanical problems before they happen. In the past year, he says the shop was able to extend oil-change intervals by as much as 3,000 miles by transitioning to an oil-sample analysis program.




Gerdes Transportation Ltd., Jacksonville, Vt.

Buses: 14
Students transported: 450
Schools served: 3
Staff: 14

With a fleet of 14 buses providing transportation for four towns in southwestern Vermont, Barry Gerdes, owner of Gerdes Transportation, is a busy man, especially considering that he drives a daily route and handles preventive maintenance and minor repairs on the fleet. He also drives most of the longer activity trips.

So it's not surprising that Gerdes has no interest in expanding his business. "I've never believed in trying to outbid someone for a contract," he says. "Things are fine the way they are. In fact, sometimes it's too much."

Gerdes gets great support, however, from his wife, Laura, who handles the books and, until this past year, drove regularly and trained the drivers as well. He also compliments his corps of drivers, some of whom have been with him for two decades.

"They help to keep us going," Gerdes says. "They're awful good about helping out in emergencies."

Despite the driver shortage, Gerdes has never had to advertise for drivers. "We've picked them from people we know," he says. "Once we get them, unless they retire, they generally stay with us."

Gerdes entered the business in 1968 with a single bus route. A cattle farmer, he decided that the daily routine of driving the bus would relieve some of the monotony of milking cows each day. He's grown the business slowly, mainly by picking up routes as they become available due to retiring contractors.

In training his drivers, Gerdes emphasizes the importance of earning the respect of the passengers. "You can't let the kids walk all over you," he says. "Drivers who want to be the good guy don't last very long on the bus."

To that end, Gerdes encourages his drivers to teach their passengers to address them as "Mr. _______" or "Mrs. ________." He also urges the drivers to seat children from front to back to help reduce discipline problems. When he picks up students at school in the afternoon, Gerdes stands in the aisle, backing up as the students load. "The students get used to it," he says. "I think it's a big help."

Parental support, Gerdes says, is generally good. Some parents are mightily impressed with the ability of his drivers to handle dozens of children. "They say it's so hard to control just two or three in the family car," Gerdes says, laughing.




Albemarle County Public Schools, Charlottesville, Va.

Buses: 200
Students transported: 12,066
Schools served: 25
Staff: 168
Average driver wages: $12.32

The transportation department at Albemarle County Public Schools is guided by a simple premise: Anything that can be done will be done to enhance and promote student safety.

According to Transportation Director Willie Smith, this can-do attitude encompasses several areas of efficiency and innovation, including computerization, community relations and safety training.

The move toward automation began in 1983, when Albemarle became one of Virginia's earliest pioneers in the use of computers to develop school bus routing schemes. Nearly two decades later, the transportation department has integrated automation into day-to-day operations such as personnel management and training, routing, fleet management, field trip management and interdepartmental communications.

Smith says the benefits and flexibility derived from this computerization helped to minimize the impact of the driver shortage by eliminating the need for 19 buses over a two-year period in the late 1990s — while the student population was growing.

The department's role in the community is also a source of pride. "Several members of our staff are certified National Safety Council instructors in defensive driving techniques," Smith says. Consequently, the transportation department serves as a resource for local courts when motorists are referred for mandatory attendance in driver improvement courses. "Flexible scheduling and quality instruction has made this program popular with the general public," Smith says.

Additional members of Albemarle's staff are certified child safety seat inspectors and work with the public to provide training in the proper techniques for installing and using child safety seats. The department is developing a formal presentation for PTO meetings to educate parents about school buses.

Albemarle's staff believes in early training of riders and even goes to local childcare centers to teach safe riding practices. As part of the effort, the youngsters are provided both classroom training as well as practical training on a school bus. "We're convinced that pre-school youngsters who learn safe riding practices make for safer riders once they start kindergarten," Smith says.

Web site:




Durham School Services, Everett, Wash.

Buses: 110
Students transported: 7,700
Schools served: 27
Staff: 117
Average driver wages: $13.40

As the contractor for Everett School District for the past two decades, Durham School Services goes the extra mile, literally. "They donate buses for the Special Olympics and Operation School Bell," says Terrie DeBolt, transportation supervisor for the school district. "They have also received a national award for their voluntary participation in a clean-air pilot program."

"We have a great partnership with the Everett School District because we all have the same goals in mind," says Brian Higginbotham, Durham's general manager in Everett. These goals, he says, are encompassed in the motto: "Safe, on time and ready to learn."

One of the practices that helps to keep the buses running safely is a strong emphasis on pre-trip inspections. "We do a very thorough air-brake inspection every day, and our drivers are trained to check under the hood every day," Higginbotham says. "A lot of fleet don't do that anymore."

To stay on top of maintenance issues, drivers are encouraged to visit the garage and talk with the mechanics, Higginbotham says. In addition, the drivers receive feedback from the shop after preventive maintenance work has been completed. "Anytime we do a PM, we provide the drivers with a card that tells them what we found and what we fixed," Higginbotham says. "It helps keep the lines of communication open."

For the past six months, the maintenance department has been involved in a pilot program coordinated by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. Testing has included particle traps, diesel oxidation catalysts and low-sulfur diesel fuel.

"We were most eager to help," says Higginbotham. "We want to see how well the technology works." Based on before-and-after tailpipe opacity testing, the clean-air initiatives have been a major success. "If we run ultra-low-sulfur fuel with particle traps, basically our emissions go down to zero," Higginbotham says.

The attention to clean-air technology hasn't diminished the shop's ability to keep the buses in top shape. In the latest state inspection, only two of the fleet's hundred-plus buses were tagged as out-of-service. "We did remarkably well," Higginbotham says.

Web site:




Berkeley County Schools, Martinsburg, W.Va.

Buses: 126
Students transported: 12,000
Schools served: 28
Staff: 163
Average driver wages: $15.00

Coping with growth in the student population is just one of the challenges for the transportation department at Berkeley County Schools. Another is the division of this expanding population into four types of schools: elementary (K-3), intermediate (4-5), middle (6-8) and high (9-12). "It makes routing difficult, to say the least," says Larry Carte, transportation director.

The four-tier school system has been in effect for six years. Elementary and intermediate school students are transported together, as are middle and high school students. "The problem is that some of the schools are 15 minutes apart," Carte says. "That makes performing our service difficult."

Difficult, but obviously not impossible. With input from his drivers, Carte has managed to satisfy the needs of the vast majority of parents. "It's important to keep drivers in the process," he says. "Bus operators usually have the answer."

As you would expect, some parents still find fault. "We generally take their complaints with a grain of salt," Carte says. "We're providing a limited service to a very demanding population. Not everyone is going to be satisfied."

Drivers receive a minimum of 18 hours of in-service training each year. Topics run the gamut, from motivational talks to hands-on instruction in how to use a fire extinguisher. Giving drivers the chance to actually use a fire extinguisher is important, Carte says. "That way, they're more likely to use it properly in a real situation."

In the shop, nine mechanics use a team approach to care for the 126 buses in the fleet. "We don't have a chief mechanic," Carte explains. "Everyone has input and helps to make decisions." This egalitarian approach, Carte admits, is an experiment, but it seems to be working.

"The morale of the mechanics is really good," Carte says. "They take pride in their work and keep the fleet in great shape." Buses are brought in every 21 school days for preventive maintenance. The state recommends a 12-year replacement cycle, but Carte says the department hasn't been keeping up. "It's tougher for us because of our growth. We're adding roughly 300 students per year."




Lamers Bus Lines Inc., Green Bay, Wis.

Buses: 500
Students transported: 7,000
Districts served: 17
Average driver wages: $10

The U.S. Department of Transportation has bestowed its highest safety rating to Lamers Bus Lines for at least a decade running. In the early 1980s, the 50-year-old company partnered with a commercial trucking company to provide experiential skid recovery training.

"Our school bus drivers are often reluctant at first," says Green Bay terminal manager Cindra Lawler. "But after one session, they're grinning. The training is not only valuable but fun."

Lamers is one of the few school bus companies in the nation that offers this training, and drivers have been thankful after recovering from close calls on the highway without a scratch.

Despite Lamers' size, with 13 bus terminals serving 17 school districts, company management stays in touch with drivers in the field. "Most of the managers started out as drivers," says Lawler. "We know what it's like out there. And we all still drive. We also do ride-alongs."

Annual awards banquets, pancake breakfasts and monetary bonuses for attendance and safety all boost employee morale. Employee camaraderie and company goodwill is evident when the five mechanics stay late to do a transmission overhaul or a driver volunteers to pick up students for another whose route is delayed by inclement weather.

Lamers Bus Lines keeps a steady pulse on customer needs. A fifth of the mostly Blue Bird fleet is special needs-equipped. Sensitivity training includes strapping drivers into wheelchairs for a route ride, and being loaded and unloaded via wheelchair lift. Other training includes school nurse in-service programs focusing on medically fragile students.

Community outreach includes donated transportation for needy children programs, and for Big Brother, Big Sister and Boys and Girls Clubs events.

"One of our biggest strengths is the quality of our drivers," says Lawler. The average age of the fleet is seven years, but the majority of drivers are skilled through years of experience that can't quite be taught. Many have been employed by Lamers in excess of two decades. "That's quality," says Lawler, remembering her own childhood bus riding days. "A couple of the drivers who are still here used to drive me to school," she says.




Weston County School District, Newcastle, Wyo.

Buses: 17
Students transported: 600
Schools served: 4
Average driver wages: $11.50

Before dawn on winter mornings, Transportation Director Ed Turner test-drives the worst routes within the 1,624 square miles of Weston County School District. "It can be snowing up in the Black Hills to the north, sunny in town, blowing out in the west and raining in the south," says Turner. "By 6 a.m., I'm talking to drivers, telling them to go look out their windows and verify that the weather I saw an hour and a half ago hasn't changed. We then make a decision whether the buses will run."

That sort of dedication isn't unique to Turner. "It's not unusual for a driver to leave at 5 a.m. Saturday, drive 300 miles to a volleyball game, then 300 miles back," he says. Buses are equipped with automatic chains, heated mirrors and fuel, and anything else needed to complete a trip safely.

The teamwork of the entire school staff helps transport 600 children daily, plus on extracurricular trips. "It's difficult to tell people what we do without bragging," Turner says. More than 40 years without a student injury gives the transportation department the right.

When Turner took over as director eight years ago, he aimed to continue an excellent safety record and to modernize the equipment. Now, the average vehicle age is 8.3 years in Weston's mostly transit-style bus fleet.

Newer equipment, plus regular maintenance performed by in-house staff mechanic, Mike Cote, keeps the mileage-to-breakdown ratio low. They finish 99.986 percent of trips without a breakdown. In a district with rural routes as far-flung as Weston County's, that record is crucial. "You don't want to break down in a little town called 'Bill,'" says Turner, "where there isn't even a ranch house for 60 miles."

Job-sharing within the district, including food service and school custodial tasks, provide bus drivers with extra hours, Turner says. These extra hours help to retain drivers who need the extra income.

Parents are kept apprised of goings-on via newspaper articles and an activity hotline that will soon be put in effect. This communication with the community helps Turner and his staff accomplish the basic challenge for which they exist — transporting children safely in a landscape- and weather-diverse county.



Related Topics: Great Fleets

Comments ( 1 )
  • Sammy Samuelson

     | about 8 years ago

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