Great Fleets Across America, Part I

staff editors Steve Hirano, Joey Campbell and Thomas McMahon, with contributions from editorial a
Posted on October 1, 2003

Even after five editions, our latest group of 50 Great Fleets still represents the very best of what student transportation has to offer — innovative programs, enthusiastic employees, updated safety practices, new cost-cutting strategies, effective equipment and a commitment to the customer. Each of these fleets is an individual success story, and the following pages are filled with examples of how operations became successful and what types of issues they deal with in the industry today. Fleets here are public, private and some a combination of both, varying widely in size of fleet, enrollment, geographical location and area of coverage. What they all have in common is that they are dedicated to ensuring that the school bus remains the safest form of surface transportation in the world. We hope you find these profiles entertaining, informative and an inspiration in your own ongoing quest for success.



Obstacles aren't a problem here

Baldwin County Public Schools, Bay Minette

Buses: 250
Students transported daily: 16,000
Schools served: 44
Staff: 250

Jim Nazary knows what’s best for Baldwin County Public Schools in Bay Minette, Ala. His 30 years of experience with the district include stints as a school administrator and high school football coach. Now, as transportation coordinator, Nazary utilizes his varied knowledge to efficiently run a large and busy transportation department and avoid a multitude of potential obstacles.

Nazary says the transportation department faces a host of common challenges, but Baldwin County works hard to overcome them. "There are numerous things that make this operation run smoothly," he says. "We have a good bus fleet with good communication and a supportive administration that provides immediate supervision."

Some of the various challenges the district faces are high student mobility at the beginning of the school year, special-needs routing problems and tight budgets. Nazary approaches these problems with a roll-up-your-sleeves mentality. About district budget shortfalls, he says, "We just try to run a tight ship. If that fails, we run it tighter." Mainly, he says, the operation overcomes budget woes by constantly looking to streamline the department’s inventory.

Baldwin County is also keen on safety. Every regular-route school bus in the fleet is equipped with a video surveillance system. Also, the supervisory staff conducts random bus checks with every driver and performs ride-alongs on every route at least once a year.

An excellent maintenance team inspects each school bus for mechanical defects once a month. Nazary says few fleets in the state have received awards as consistently as Baldwin County for having less than a 10 percent deficiency rate on state inspections.

A high level of safety is achieved by a well-trained staff. The district’s in-house driver trainer handles all state-mandated training courses. Baldwin County also offers a pre-training course or four-hour training session that teaches driver applicants what to expect from the state-mandated training and what issues to prepare for. Essentially, the department offers training based not only on what is required by law, but also by what is demanded by employees.

Says Nazary, "We provide required training, but we'll spend more time with any driver if they want it or need it."



A great thing in a small package

Etolin Bus Co., Wrangell

Buses: 3
Students transported daily: 70
Schools served: 2
Staff: 7
Area of service: 15 miles of roads

Size is not important in matters of school transportation safety. Etolin Bus Co. proves this daily. Located in tiny Wrangell, Alaska, about 100 miles southeast of the capital city Juneau, Etolin has rarely experienced the problems common to most school bus operations, such as discipline, budget troubles or a driver shortage.

"We've been in this business almost 20 years, and we still haven’t had an accident," says Greg McCormack, who jointly owns and manages the company with his wife Carrine. The key to doing this, he adds, is continuing to invest back in the business, both financially and in work ethic. McCormack, who is also a state-certified School Bus Instructor, has a vested interest in making sure his drivers are trained well. The efforts show.

The company’s three school buses are all less than five years old and equipped with push-button service doors, video surveillance systems and automatic tire chains. They are kept in a spacious indoor bus barn and maintained in a clean, well-lit shop with heated floors. McCormack says that state inspectors have often commented on how impressed they are with the shop and equipment.

"Our goal is to try to make everything stress free for the drivers," says McCormack. "Up here in Alaska, it’s tough to sleep when you’re worrying about snow and tire chains." Fortunately for Etolin, the well-equipped fleet is also maintained expertly by a dedicated mechanic who surveys and services each bus every two weeks.

Another area in which the company excels is student discipline. McCormack says that recently at a nearby district a driver became so frustrated with a rowdy school bus that he got out of the bus and walked away in the middle of a route. At Etolin, however, relations with school administration are so good that discipline problems are dealt with long before anything like that would happen. Drivers are empowered to discipline students and even remove them from the bus for up to three days before involving the district.

"I've heard some horror stories where the driver has to go through a long procedure with his district office that really gets in the way of a quick discipline process," says McCormack. "We're fortunate here because our district fully supports us. If there are any questions we pull the video and review it with parents and the district."



A model for school transportation success

Paradise Valley Unified School District, Phoenix

Buses: 177
Students transported daily: 9,500
Schools served: 48
Staff: 207
Average driver wages: $13.00
Area of service: 98 square miles

Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix transports more than 9,500 students safely and economically over approximately 98 square miles. Traveling nearly 10,000 miles a day, the fleet incorporates small and large buses, many with wheelchair lifts for students with disabilities, and also takes many students to schools outside the district. The success of this transportation department starts with the staff.

Says Jeff Cook, transportation director for the district, "We've been blessed with good people who care about kids. They don’t do it for money — they feel they can make a difference."

The department’s 207 employees operate a modern and well-equipped fleet, while running a full service, computer-equipped maintenance shop and providing safe crossing sites for students at more than 88 locations throughout the district. Special-needs students are transported in new, air-conditioned small buses to a variety of schools and district programs. Additionally, drivers hone their abilities in the district’s state-recognized in-house driver-training program. Cook says Arizona state requirements for driver training were modeled after the training program at Paradise Valley.

In addition to traveling 1.9 million safe miles annually, the transportation department is dedicated to environmentally conscious programs. Paradise Valley has special programs for disposing of waste oil, antifreeze, solvents, freon, batteries and tires. In fact, the state of Arizona awarded the department approximately $300,000 recently to help fund the district’s Alternative Fuels Program for the entire vehicle fleet, including school buses. This program entails converting existing buses to run on ultra-low sulfur diesel, retrofitting particulate traps on older buses and purchasing cleaner diesel- and CNG-fueled buses. Cook points out that Paradise Valley received the local Blue Sky Award for commitment to the environment.

Department employees also take pride in providing safety education for kindergarten and first graders. Students are instructed through a six-panel brochure developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which discusses school bus safety and gives school bus safety rules to drivers, children and parents. Driver teams also take the mechanical "Barney" the school bus out to schools at the beginning of the school year to offer further safety training.



Two times the charm

Huntsville Public Schools, Huntsville

Buses: 37
Students transported daily: 1,700
Schools served: 4
Staff: 32
Area of service: 494 square miles

Until this year, only one transportation department had ever earned the honor of Great Fleet in its state more than once in the five-year history of the Great Fleets Across America competition. This year Huntsville Public Schools becomes the second operation to earn that honor. Since being recognized in the 2001 issue, the department has undergone so many improvements that we think it warrants a second recognition.

Earlier this year, the district noted that the transportation department had the third largest portion of the school budget, behind salaries and buildings/grounds maintenance. With that in mind, the superintendent decided to create a director of transportation position, and Alvin Lievsay, direct from 20 years as high school principal, was hired to the position. "A budget of $1.026 million demanded some sort of dedicated management," he explains.

With the creation of the director’s position, Lievsay, Transportation Supervisor Gary Pierce and the rest of the staff were able to achieve new levels of efficiency. In the shop, Lievsay added the operation’s first full-time serviceman who was not doubling as a driver. "This has greatly increased the effectiveness of our preventive maintenance program," he says. Through routing efficiencies, Lievsay and his staff were able to reduce the number of bus routes by three and reduce the fleet by four buses. "I am also instituting a new computer routing system that will improve community relations immensely," explains Lievsay. The system will enable building principals and school secretaries to tell parents which bus their children will ride and what time the bus will load and unload.

Driver training has doubled since Huntsville’s first recognition in 200l, including the addition of First Aid/CPR training and defensive driving training. Driver morale has likewise increased. "We were able to increase the attendance bonus fivefold, from $50 to $250," says Lievsay.

In his 26 years with the district, Lievsay says the transportation department has always had trouble recruiting and retaining drivers. "I believe the best indicator of driver morale and a successful program is the fact that 100 percent of my drivers returned for the new school year," he says. "This is a first for our district. I have had to take down our driver recruitment signs because I have all positions filled and seven substitute drivers as well."



'There's pride in our ride'

Elk Grove Unified School District, Sacramento

Buses: 148
Students transported daily: 9,360
Schools served: 50
Staff: 225
Average driver wage: $16.38

The 225 transportation employees for Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento, Calif., work in one of the nation’s fastest-growing school districts. Student enrollment increases by approximately 2,500 students each school year, and new schools are constantly opening, complicating bus routes and schedules. Add to that a 320-square-mile area of terrain to cover, and the potential challenges to school transportation are evident. But the department overcomes these obstacles by seeing one motto as its mission — "There's pride in our ride." Staff members work hard to live up to this motto.

"One of our ongoing challenges is to maintain creative and efficient route scheduling," says Claudia Sherrill, director of transportation. "Maps of our rapidly growing areas are not even available as we are building routes, so our staff must become 'new-road warriors' in order to keep the pace."

Part of staying effective under adverse conditions depends on an excellent driver-training program. Training programs have been so successful at Elk Grove that the staff has also provided sessions at workshops and conferences. Further demonstrating its training prowess, the district possesses dozens of trophies and awards from local and statewide school bus roadeo competitions.

A top-notch maintenance program ensures that safe drivers are operating safe vehicles. Every mechanic in the modern, 24-hour bus shop is required to become certified by the state’s apprenticeship mechanic program. Technicians work on 148 school buses, approximately 275 district vehicles, the California Department of Education Instructor Program bus fleet and four other outside maintenance contracts.

Says Sherrill, "In trying to offer a snapshot of our department, I find it next to impossible to paint the real picture of unity, loyalty, commitment and teamwork that is the mainstay of this great family I have the privilege to work with." Her feelings are echoed by school district administration.

"Our transportation department has an excellent reputation because the staff always puts the customer first," says Dave Gordon, district superintendent. "They take great pride in their excellent safety record and in providing top-notch service to students and families, whom they often know by name."



A solution-oriented department

Colorado Springs School District 11, Colorado Springs

Buses: 120
Students transported daily: 6,000+
Schools served: 60
Staff: 132
Area of service: 80 square miles
Average driver wage: $12.24

Identifying concerns and improving on them is what Colorado Springs School District 11 strives for every year. Last year, when new start times for schools were implemented, it posed a great challenge for the district. With 60 schools in the district, clearly it would be impossible to give every one the revered 8:00 a.m. start time.

"Start times were one of our biggest challenges," says W.L. (Bill) Bair, transportation director. "The district wanted to go to a two-tier transportation system, but we said 'Let's take a look and see if we still can't do something better with the three-tier.'"

With the long-standing impression that adolescents need more sleep in order to do better academically, both the middle and high school times were pushed back 45 minutes to 8:45 and 7:45 respectively, while the elementary times are now earlier by an hour and 15 minutes to 8:00.

"Because they’re closer to 8:00, the elementary and high schools are happy, but the middle schools are starting later so they’re not happy." says Bair. "That's just what happens in this type of situation, but it was a really cooperative effort in creating an optimal program to support that schedule."

Student discipline is the focus this year. While schools will continue to have the final say in serious incidents that result in a student’s suspension or expulsion from the school, calling parents and issuing write-ups for misbehavior is now the responsibility of the department. Bair says this is to gain some operative consistency and to follow the philosophy of the school bus being an extension of the classroom.

"When we’re looking at trying to produce lifelong learners and quality citizens, then we have an impact on that and we’re teaching them through example," he explains.

How a driver reacts to another motorist’s driving practices, or handles a difficult parent, will be witnessed by his or her much younger and discriminating passengers. What students see and hear could have a lasting effect on how they treat other people.

"Probably the bottom line of our guiding principles is that we recognize that we are teachers," says Bair. "The drivers are not teaching math, or English, or science, but they are teaching life skills."



Experience provides the edge

Durham School Services, Stratford

Buses: 84
Students transported daily: 5,200
Schools served: 28
Staff: 85

Since 1916, transportation services for Stratford (Conn.) Public Schools have been provided by the same family business. Durham School Services purchased that business in 2001, but the company founder’s granddaughter, Pam Capuano, remained general manager of the operation and keeps all the family traditions alive. "We have an edge with our experience here," says Capuano. "When running a business a certain way is in your blood, it really helps."

One of the operation’s traditions is fostering a strong culture of accountability within every employee — from the drivers and mechanics up to the supervisors. In fact, the company slogan is "I'm responsible," and every new employee is told to remember it. A high level of accountability, of course, depends on a staff of well-trained employees, and Durham prides itself on a very thorough training program. School bus drivers must be prepared for pre-employment drug testing, random drug and alcohol testing, criminal background checks, physical examinations, behind-the-wheel and classroom instruction, monthly safety meetings, refreshers and other in-service training sessions.

This same level of commitment is expected from the staff of four full-time mechanics and one part-timer. The operation’s facility is located on a three-acre lot with a 10,000-square-foot maintenance shop. The maintenance team, which used to work on a fleet of motorcoaches as well, has consistently received the highest inspection rating in the state for the past several years. The operation is held in such high regard by the Department of Motor Vehicles (which performs state inspections), that according to Capuano, "they argue every year over who gets to come and inspect us." And just in case a problem beyond Durham’s control occurs, a Greek Orthodox priest blesses the school bus fleet before the beginning of every school year.

Durham also displays excellence in communication and relationship building. Not only does the operation have a great rapport with the school district administration, but employees within the department have developed a great sense of camaraderie, too. Says Capuano, "Durham's corporate office conducted a survey last year on employee satisfaction and we scored higher than any other [Durham operation] in the country."



All for one, one for all

Colonial School District, New Castle

Buses: 53 (126 including contractors)
Students transported daily: 8,500
Schools served: 14
Staff: 100
Average driver wage: $14.00

With 126 buses operated by a combination of four contractors and the school district, school transportation at Colonial School District in New Castle, Del., amazingly runs with few snags. But the successful delegation of responsibilities in transporting students, says Transportation Supervisor Don Hartwig, has a great deal to do with the history of the operation. "Our four contractors are all family businesses that have been working with this school district for anywhere from 30 to 50 years. There is a lot of experience here," he says.

The entire operation, including all contractor buses, is routed and administrated through the district office supervised by Hartwig. Communication is solid, as two-way radios link the dispatchers with drivers on all buses, and district and contractor employees cooperate smoothly on a daily basis. Hartwig says he and his office staff — which includes a liaison dedicated to addressing issues between the district and contractors — also frequently observe drivers and buses during random ride-alongs. "One thing I’m most proud of and I feel is very unique is the dedication of our district and contractor staffs working together as one unit," says Hartwig.

The mission of Colonial’s transportation operation is to extend student achievement from schools onto school buses. To do this, the district has made a concerted effort to outfit the fleet with solid equipment and technology and to consistently make attempts at innovation. For instance, the operation uses up-to-date routing software, thorough and ever-evolving training routines, technology pilot programs and an aggressive bus replacement strategy that has kept every bus in the fleet younger than 8 years old. Currently, the district is operating a pilot test of different LED stop lights and stop-arm lights.

The mechanics also have solid resources at their disposal with engine and transmission software programs, a fleet entirely equipped with air brakes and two fully equipped bus bays. Says Hartwig, "Instead of greasy hands, our mechanics walk around with laptops to diagnose problems." Their expertise is evident in the excellent safety record during the semi-annual bus inspection by the Delaware Department of Motor Vehicles. Hartwig says that, overall, bus specifications and replacements have been treated very well by the state. "We just all go by the saying that it’s not the name on the bus, it’s the kids who are in it."



Making a change for the better

Miami-Dade County School District, Miami

Buses: 1,710
Students transported daily: 72,035
Schools served: 318
Staff: 3,132
Area of service: 1,955 square miles

In the past 18 months, the transportation department at Miami-Dade County Public Schools has undergone a metamorphosis. Rising to multiple challenges — a new superintendent, reduced funding following Sept. 11 and the threat of privatization — it was time for the transportation department leaders to begin thinking outside the box. "The department of transportation responded to the [superintendent’s] challenge by initiating a comprehensive self-assessment review using the Florida Sterling Management System," says Jerry Klein, administrative director of transportation. The results of the review brought to light three major areas of focus for improvement — customer satisfaction, routing efficiency and vehicle maintenance efficiency.

As a first step, the department established a Systems and Accountability Team, with the goal of analyzing department processes. Since late 2001, the team has driven the establishment of an automated fuel management system and modified the existing fleet management software to include data warehousing, productivity analysis and staffing level adjustments. Further changes include a new maintenance work order system to track labor hours, parts warranty, efficiency and cost. These changes have resulted in increased efficiency and significant monetary savings.

In April 2002, the department piloted a centralized routing concept by relocating staff from four of the eight terminals to a single facility. Centralization enabled the district to reduce the number of routes and simplify the process for schools to request transportation services. The department has also issued an RFP for a next-generation, state of the art, cost-effective computerized routing system. By the end of the 2003-04 school year, Klein anticipates having all routing personnel centralized at the transportation department’s administrative office.

Though amazing progress has been made over the past two years, there are still plenty of changes in store for the Miami-Dade County transportation department. The Sterling Management System is an ongoing process, including annual surveys of schools, employees, parents and customers. "It is the department’s expectations that these surveys will provide additional opportunities to increase customer satisfaction and increase efficiencies," says Klein.



Safety is a total team effort

Douglas County Public Schools, Douglasville

Buses: 174
Students transported daily: 15,000+
Schools served: 29
Staff: 268
Area of service: 268 square miles

A strong support group is what keeps the Douglas County School System Transportation Department consistently dependable. While there are both leaders and followers, they need to coexist for operations to progress safely and smoothly.

"A quarterback is only as good as his linemen’s blocking," says Mike Ward, director of transportation for the Douglasville, Ga.-based system. "This is all such a team effort, and everyone from the community to the [school] board has been very supportive."

When Ward came to the department four years ago, the organization was running well, but some areas did need to be addressed and improved upon. For one thing, the bus fleet was older than it should have been and required replacements. Eighty-two new buses have since been added.

"It was just something that needed to be fixed," says Ward. "And through the support of our school board, it has been."

Maintenance and routing have also seen their share of upgrades. In addition to a tire-changing machine in the shop, software upgrades have been installed to create a more efficient and "paperless" shop. Mechanics attended a special training session last spring to familiarize themselves with the new technology.

"With the computers and upgrades, what you have is less redundancy," says Ward. "Instead of filling out a paper and having someone else put it into the computer, you can do it directly, giving mechanics more say on the work they did."

After upgrading the routing system to Edulog NT, the black-and-white maps of the past are now full-color diagrams with many extras. And although only schools currently have access to the network, giving parents routing information as they are called in, eventually parents will have direct access as well.

In this industry, communication and sharing are important, says Ward, not only within the department but also with the community and even other districts. But ultimately, it takes having a good supporting cast to make things happen.

"It's a tough job here as it is anywhere else, but I inherited a fantastic group of people," says Ward. "Though, one thing helps you stand out better than anything else and that’s good people. We definitely have them in Douglas County."

Related Topics: Great Fleets

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