Great Fleets Across America, Part III
(Massachusetts-New Jersey)

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


Tellstone & Son Inc., Blackstone, Mass.

Buses: 53
Students transported: 3,800
Schools served: 7
Staff: 52
Average driver wages: $10.00-$12.00

A phrase commonly used to describe the management style of owner-operator Clayton Tellstone Jr. is "hands-on." Though Tellstone & Son transports 3,800 students daily to seven schools in two districts, Tellstone still drives every route himself before the start of the school year to ensure all stops are safe.

Tellstone's father and grandfather started the company almost 50 years ago, but time has not worn away that personal touch. Tellstone's two sons work for the company, and his daughter-in-law sometimes pitches in by driving routes.

"They [the Tellstones] are local people who want to serve the communities with excellence and personal service," says Frederick Hartnett, superintendent of schools for Blackstone-Millville Regional School District, which Tellstone has served for 47 years.

The company supplies buses to the fire, police and civil defense departments to assist in times of disaster. It also offers reduced rates to the Blackstone Valley Boys & Girls Club and the Little People's Daycare Center to facilitate field trips.

Tellstone meets personally with school administrators to discuss routing, student behavior and other concerns. "The school administrators and I have found Clay Tellstone and company to be extremely flexible and immediately responsive to our questions, concerns and problems," says Concetta Verge, superintendent of Douglas Public Schools.

But don't let the family atmosphere lead you to believe that Tellstone & Son is behind the times when it comes to technology or operational procedures. "Tellstone & Son was one of the first in the state to comply with the non-conforming van issue," notes Clairina Coutu, safety instructor for the company. Tellstone immediately went to work replacing vans with small buses, of which the fleet currently has 13.

The company has also been replacing its conventional buses with transit-style buses because Tellstone believes they afford the driver a better view of children crossing in front.

All buses are serviced at a seven-bay garage managed by Tellstone's son, Neil. The garage is open to the general public and Tellstone's three mechanics and one inspection person work on a variety of vehicles.




Detroit Public Schools, Detroit

Buses: 437
Students transported: 17,000
Schools served: 247
Staff: 834
Average driver wages: $13.92

The school bus operation at Detroit Public Schools reduced costs last year by $6.2 million and projects a further reduction this year of between $3 and $5 million. "The makeover has been dramatic," says transportation director Dale Goby. "When one considers the operation was traditionally $5 million over budget on an annual basis, the turnaround is even more significant."

Until last year, the buses in Detroit's fleet ranged from 7 to 17 years old, and were more than showing their age. "Buses were in poor condition and received marginal evaluations by the state police in their annual inspections," says Goby. In addition to the safety concerns attached to an aging fleet, Goby points out that old or poorly maintained buses project a negative image for the district. So he sought bond money and purchased more than 200 buses, using specifications written in collaboration with a vehicle engineer specifically for a "tough, Midwestern urban environment."

In addition to securing new equipment and improving maintenance procedures, the department influenced school bell times and scheduled more efficiently to facilitate a reduction in routes by more than 50 percent.

A reduction in cost does not mean a reduction in customer service. On the contrary, the Detroit transportation staff is stepping up its customer service through a series of initiatives. The driver training program is being improved to include additional training on district-wide half days for students. The department has also taken on responsibility for the Safety Net Program, designed to provide adult supervision for students when no one is at home to receive the child at the end of the school day. "The program was operated at two centers in the district and we consolidated it into one of our two terminals and greatly reduced expenditures," says Goby.

Detroit Public Schools runs a combination of district-run and contracted bus service. Goby has established performance standards for making sure the in-house operation (315 routes) and the contractor operations (185 routes via three contractors) are on the same page. To offer the public a central contact point for operations, Goby has set up a Transportation Information Center, which includes customer service representatives and dispatch.




Schmitty & Sons, Lakeville, Minn.

Buses: 180
Students transported: 8,700
Schools served: 4
Staff: 212
Average driver wages: $14.00

To say the transportation operation at Schmitty & Sons is diversified is an understatement. The company, which started in 1950 as a school bus operation, now also operates six motorcoaches and 30 transit buses, in addition to running a bus dealership. "We really have expanded a lot in the last 10 to 15 years," says general manager Todd Telin.

The growth is due in large part to the company's location in the south metropolitan Twin Cities area, one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. With growth comes opportunity for expansion, but Telin says the company makes sure not to bite off more than it can chew. "We've been pretty methodical about the type of work we take on. If we take on a new contract, we know that we can handle it and do a great job at it. If we don't think we can do a great job at it, we'll pass on it," he says. "There's no guesswork in what we do."

Schmitty & Sons' management staff runs the company with professionalism and expects its employees to conduct themselves similarly. "We're pretty fussy about who we hire. We do a lot of background checks, a lot of past employment checks, to really learn about the person," says Telin. Finding qualified school bus drivers has been his number-one challenge for several years running.

The operation's computerized shop maintains the company's diversified fleet, in addition to performing maintenance services for other operators. Mechanics are ASE-certified and attend ongoing training. "Whenever there are classes on something new, we ship two or three guys to them. We're proactive in ongoing training for our technicians," says Telin.

Expansion and diversification over the years have not caused Schmitty & Sons to lose touch with the community. The company donates buses to schools and community organizations for parades, band trips and other activities. Telin and staff recently completed work on a school bus safety video that went out to every school in Minnesota for use in kindergarten through fourth-grade classes. The project, which grew out of the accidental death of a girl running to catch the school bus, was a collaborative effort between the girl's family, her school, a local TV station, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Schmitty & Sons transportation.




DeSoto County School District, Southaven, Miss.

Buses: 225
Students transported: 15,000
Schools served: 24
Staff: 214
Average driver wages: $50 per route

When asked if he can sum up his operation's greatest strength in one word, Chuck Bannon, director of transportation for the DeSoto County School District, answers without hesitation: "Service." DeSoto County has experienced record growth in the past few years, averaging 1,100 new students per year. "It's mainly due to people coming out of Memphis, Tennessee, into the next county south of them which happens to be in another state," explains Bannon, who notes that most people who live in DeSoto County work in Memphis. "DeSoto is a bedroom community to Memphis and our schools are a big asset. A lot of people move here because of the good schools for their children."

Undeterred by the task of providing transportation for that kind of rapid growth, Bannon has employed the use of routing software from Planware Systems over the past four years. "We open a new school every year," notes Bannon. "This year we built our routes completely off of the Planware software and it went perfectly." Downloading information from a database of enrollment information maintained by the state of Mississippi, the system is able to easily pinpoint density and map routes. "This enabled us to be very accurate with our routing," says Bannon, "and gave us the ability to have the right amount of equipment in place, for instance, or decide quickly how long the routes would be."

Technology has also made upkeep of parts inventory much simpler in DeSoto County. Using Navistar's program has made reordering equipment a snap. "We enter into the computer the parts that are used each day," Bannon explains. "Then at night, they download the information and send out replacements."

With a Website that proclaims, "Safety is our motto," DeSoto County's transportation department has recently welcomed a new member of the team. Sidney's Safety Bus is a mobile school bus safety classroom that travels from school to school each day, teaching elementary students the importance of bus safety. Dreamed up three years ago, Sidney's Safety Bus was built by the hard work of numerous people and companies who donated their materials, parts and time to making this unique teaching tool a reality.

Web site:




Blue Springs School District, Blue Springs, Mo.

Buses: 131
Students transported: 8,000
Schools served: 21
Staff: 155
Average driver wages: $12.50

Safety and service are top priorities for the transportation department at Blue Springs Schools when transporting more than 8,000 students daily throughout the suburbs of Kansas City, Mo. "Ultimately we strive for the satisfaction of those two things," says Glen McMillian, Blue Springs executive director of transportation. McMillian, who is celebrating his 24th year with Blue Springs, says in addition to safety skills, good driver training is key to providing good service. "I think our greatest strength is our drivers and how they relate to the kids and to the parents," says McMillian.

Blue Springs' training program, which includes one-on-one instruction for each trainee, has met with great success by giving new drivers the preparation and skills they need, resulting in high driver retention rates. Some long-term drivers have been with the district for 15 to 30 years.

The maintenance staff also plays an integral role in the operation's success by keeping the 131-bus fleet in top form. The hardworking staff consistently wins awards for yearly state inspections and has also received an award for fleet excellence by the Missouri Association of Pupil Transportation.

Building a rapport with the community is also important to the transportation department. One way Blue Springs has fostered community involvement was the development of the Adopt-a-School program, which enables local businesses to create partnerships within the district. A partnership with local State Farm Insurance agents has yielded a recognition program awarding a $100 savings bond to the student selected as "Rider of the Year" and a $200 savings bond to the "Driver of the Year."

The operation is also an adoptee of the Blue Springs Police Department, which helped institute a program that has greatly reduced stop arm violations by issuing warnings and tickets to violators. This program has had a profound effect on the safety of the children and promoted good relationships between police officers, drivers and students.

Another novel way community ties have been established is through the yearly Thanksgiving dinner given by the department, which is attended by more than 200 people, including retirees, administrators and business people from the community.




Karst Stage Inc., Bozeman, Mont.

Buses: 60
Students transported: 3,000
Schools served: 12
Staff: 55

Karst Stage has been busing students in Montana for 21 years, but the last year and a half have seen tremendous changes, due in large part to a new management team. Luke Avery, safety manager, and Vance Ruff, contract manager, have tightened the ship through improvements across the board in the 60-vehicle school bus operation that serves three Montana districts — Yellowstone, Anaconda and Bozeman.

"Before we teamed up, the safety training here was very lax," says Avery, who also acts as safety manager for the Karst Stage motorcoach and transit divisions and the airport ground transportation operation. Now, qualification files are updated daily, and drivers receive 20 hours of initial training, and 10 hours of annual retraining. "From the initial visit when a person comes in to apply for a job, we start talking about safety and policy and procedure," says Avery.

Both veterans to transportation, Avery and Ruff are relatively new to the school bus segment but have jumped in with both feet, attaining certifications to conduct their own first aid, CPR and other in-house driver training. Ruff is a member of the Montana Association of School Bus Drivers and Avery sits on the board of directors for the Montana Association for Pupil Transportation.

One of the strengths Ruff has brought to the operation is an understanding of public relations. He got local businesses such as fuel, tire and insurance companies to sponsor safety meetings and employee awards programs. "I started with companies we already use. We spend a lot of money with them and they were more than happy to give a little back," says Ruff. One of the Karst Stage's drivers runs a cinnamon roll company on the side and Ruff convinced the tire company to sponsor "cinnamon-roll Mondays."

Avery and Ruff encourage their drivers to participate in roadeos and other industry competitions. Ruff nominated two of his drivers for state-level awards last year. One was named runner-up for Driver of the Year and the other won the title of Special-Needs Driver of the Year. "This is something that wasn't being done for our people before," says Ruff.

Web site:




Omaha Public Schools, Omaha, Neb.

Buses: 369
Students transported: 12,000
Schools served: 87
Staff: 374
Average driver wages: $13.20

"I was a pilot for the Air Force for 26 years," says David Wolfe, director of transportation for Omaha Public Schools. "Whether you're moving airplanes across the world or moving buses across town, it takes the same logistics, the same thought processes."

Indeed, organization and efficiency characterize this operation, which owns and operates 164 small buses and leases 205 full-sized buses from Laidlaw. The smaller buses are used almost entirely for the 2,000 special-needs students who Wolfe's operation transports daily. "Omaha is the largest city in the state of Nebraska and has the best medical facilities in the state," explains Wolfe, "so parents who have special needs for their children migrate here for the care that they can receive."

When Wolfe first joined the department, things were a little different. "When I came on six years ago, we had over 300 vans. Those were mainly used for special-ed transportation. We haven't bought a van since 1998. We have slowly built up to 164 buses, and we're transporting all wheelchairs in buses this year, none in vans."

Other changes include a block scheduling system that allows Wolfe the leeway to assign additional routes to drivers based on proficiency and how many children need to be added until the route is full. The local driver and aide's union is so happy with this system for scheduling and salaries that it recently held a nearly unanimous vote to stay with it for a third year.

Technology has streamlined the operation further. "Our parts storage department was tracking parts on 3x5 cards when I started out here," says Wolfe. "Back then, I had over $310,000 worth of inventory. We've gotten that down to $135,000."

In 1999, Wolfe implemented Edulog, a computerized routing program that has made scheduling routes far more efficient. However, Wolfe knows that no computer can ever stand in for his human resources. "Say what you can about the technology," notes Wolfe, "Strength comes from people. The driver and aide out there meeting the parents, working with the administration; it's always the people."

Web site:




Lyon County School District, Yerington, Nev.

Buses: 87
Students transported: 5,000
Schools served: 15
Staff: 98
Average driver wages: $11.54-$15.50

Lyon County, located on the western edge of Nevada neighboring Reno, covers more than 2,000 square miles and includes two cities and several rural towns. The county's geography, which also includes dirt roads and several high-traffic two-lane highways, is a challenge faced everyday by bus drivers transporting 5,000 students for the Lyon County School District. The transportation staff takes these and many other challenges, such as driver recruitment, in stride. Many Lyon County drivers also seek out a good challenge by entering the state school bus roadeo competition.

"We have a very dedicated staff who believe in and support safe transportation for all of our students," says Steve Clifford, district transportation supervisor. "Our safety and accident records are something to be extremely proud of," he says.

The operation also takes great pride in its driver-training program, where the average driver is required to complete 50 hours of training. A twice-daily pre-trip inspection of vehicles is also a requirement. All new drivers are given four evaluations the first year of driving to ensure procedures are followed correctly.

Other driver requirements include a thorough knowledge and understanding of the federal, state, local and school district laws and policies. Clifford says the end result of the program is a safe, competent, confident driver who understands the mechanical operation of a school bus.

The department currently has two vehicle maintenance shops in the state — the main shop is located in Yerington and the second is in Fernley. The maintenance program includes regular service intervals for all buses and safety inspections based on usage and biannual highway patrol inspections. In addition to 87 school buses, the shop also services the fleet of 108 support vehicles.

A computer program, developed by the shop foreman, is used to track the performance of all maintenance at the required intervals. The program also tracks costs involved for each repair so the overall cost of vehicle operation may be factored. When servicing newer vehicles, the staff uses computerized diagnostic equipment for which they have received updated training. The department is also working toward ASE certification for all shop staff.

Web site:




Safeway Transportation, Kingston, N.H.

Buses: 115
Students transported: 735
Schools served: 157
Staff: 123

George and Joyce Korn started Safeway Transportation in 1988 as a company training special-education drivers, under a grant from the New Hampshire Department of Safety. Once the training project was completed, Safeway initiated student transportation service to one school district with two used station wagons. A lot has changed since then.

Safeway has experienced an annual growth rate of 15 to 20 percent, and currently transports 735 special-needs students daily on 115 small school buses. "We attribute the growth to our service policy and driver training program," says company creator and vice president George Korn, who has a doctorate in special education and more than 30 years' experience teaching and directing special education.

"Safeway's training requirements for drivers and monitors consistently exceeds New Hampshire and Massachusetts state minimums," says Korn. Pre-service training includes a minimum of eight hours. During the first year, each driver and monitor are required to complete the National Safety Council's defensive driver course. Drivers must re-certify in defensive driving every two years and complete six yours of inservice training annually. Most drivers and monitors must also obtain CPR certification.

Safeway actively works with schools and parents to identify ways to assist students in enjoying their travel time. "It is routine for Safeway to supply video games, audio, CD or cassette players or other manipulative/tactile items of interest to students on vehicles," says Korn. This keeps behavior problems to a minimum, which in turn enables the company to cut costs by reducing the number of attendants on routes.

Korn's son William, an eight-year veteran of the Air Force, acts as Safeway's general manager, while Korn's daughter Doris Nichols, a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire, is the company's human resources manager. "The family orientation creates an atmosphere for drivers to come in and talk not only about their routes, but also about important things happening in their life," says Korn. Every other Thursday is payday at Safeway, and Korn and fellow administrators cook employees a "payroll breakfast." "This gives the drivers a chance to sit and meet their counterparts, who would otherwise not be known to them," says Korn.




Toms River Regional Schools, Toms River, N.J.

Buses: 180
Students transported: 15,530
Schools served: 41
Staff: 218
Average driver wages: $30,000 per year

Senior citizens can often be found riding school buses operated by Toms River Regional Schools. That's because the district runs a program that buses seniors to activities at the schools, including plays, assemblies, sports programs and holiday concerts. "It acquaints them with the wonderful accomplishments of our students," says transportation director Gus Kakavas.

Toms River also uses its buses in emergency situations, providing evacuation to its schools, which open during disasters as emergency shelters. "Our location to the Jersey Shore and our proximity to a nuclear generating plant 10 miles to our south make our emergency role important and real," Kakavas says.

The district's bus drivers are equipped to handle such situations through its driver training program. One training coordinator and five trainers provide each of the district's 170 drivers with more than 50 hours of behind-the-wheel training after they received their CDL. Toms River has a dedicated 30-seat training room with all of the necessary support equipment, including a computer-catalogued video library. "The state legislature has used our training program as a model for a bill to mandate similar training state-wide," Kakavas says. "We feel our training program is the cornerstone of our outstanding safety record."

Toms River also gained state recognition with a cost-per-pupil average well below the state average and an efficiency ratio that is two times New Jersey's target of 120 percent vehicle utilization. "Our high efficiency/low pupil cost has been achieved by multi-tiering our bell schedules and using the latest routing software," Kakavas says.

The district also maximizes its ratio of state aid vs. local tax funds by creating the best possible walking conditions for the children who live under the state mileage mandate. "In our district, we now have over 5,000 pupils who safely walk to school everyday that would otherwise have had to be transported with additional local tax dollars," Kakavas says. Toms River is now working to lower the state mileage mandate in order to put more children on buses without tapping out the local budget.

Web site:



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