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

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

Words to live and work by

Laidlaw, Dudley-Charlton-Oxford

Buses: 74
Students transported daily: 6,000
Schools served: 11
Staff: 85
Average driver wage: $10.00

Bill Lataille, manager of Laidlaw’s Dudley-Charlton-Oxford branch, admits that its slogan, “Caring People Serving Communities,” sounds a bit corny. But when it comes right down to it, he says he couldn’t find four better words to represent his operation.

The staff constantly proves that it cares and indeed serves the community. When one employee’s husband lost his job shortly before Thanksgiving, Lataille got on the radio and alerted the drivers, asking for suggestions of how they could help.

“The drivers came in overwhelmingly with food, and I ended up going to her house with probably 20 bags of groceries and over $200 in cash the day before Thanksgiving,” says Lataille.

When a staff member is out sick, others often get together and start a collection to help pay for whatever he or she needs, which has been a week’s pay in some cases.

The Laidlaw branch proves its dedication to transporting students safely with an outstanding driving record. For the past two years, the operation has had no preventable accidents. To encourage cautious driving, Lataille provides a different safety reminder each morning over the radio, such as, “Good morning, drivers. Just a reminder to keep your eyes on the road and watch for cars coming out of driveways.”

Lataille also encourages thorough pre-trip inspections by hiding certificates somewhere on the buses on certain days. As long as the drivers bring them in to his office before they leave the yard, he rewards them with gift certificates to Dunkin’ Donuts or elsewhere.

The branch just opened its own maintenance facility with four mechanics, which Lataille says is a tremendous asset. Previously, they had to shuttle buses to a community 18 miles away for repair work.

To deal with an increasing problem of stop-arm running, the operation started a police ride-along program in which an officer rides on a bus through trouble areas to catch offenders. Lataille says the benefits of the program extend beyond reducing stop-arm running.

“It introduces the bus driver to the police officer’s point of view and the officer to the driver’s point of view,” he says. “The officer rides in full uniform with the kids and talks and jokes with them, and it gives the kids a sense that the officer isn’t anyone to be afraid of.”



A great loss and remarkable recovery

Owosso Public Schools, Owosso

Buses: 24
Students transported daily: 1,500
Schools served: 10
Staff: 19
Area of service: 28 square miles
Average driver wage: $16.00

Often we don’t realize how much we depend on something until it’s gone — whether it be a commodity like electricity or someone we work with.

At Owosso Public Schools, the transportation team lost its mechanic of 23 years, George McCurdy, who passed away from cancer earlier this year. Besides the grief on a personal level, the department was left to perform school bus maintenance without a mechanic for the rest of the school year.

“You don’t realize how much a mechanic does until you lose him,” says Jayne Campbell, transportation supervisor for the district. The void was large, but Campbell says the drivers willingly took over maintenance responsibilities from fueling to keeping track of oil. The bigger jobs they couldn’t handle, such as transmission work, they outsourced.

“A lot of people learned a lot about their vehicles,” says Campbell. “Not only have they taken on more job duties, but they still keep the safety of their children top priority and never complain.”

For the new school year, Owosso has a new mechanic, who Campbell admits has some big shoes to fill, but she is confident in his ability to carry the fleet’s excellent safety record.

The camaraderie of the staff is strong, both at and away from work. Around Christmas, a staff party is followed by delivering presents together to underprivileged families. Campbell also shows her appreciation for the drivers by taking them out to breakfast once or twice a year.

The drivers’ skills are kept sharp with a wide variety of training methods, and Campbell is constantly looking for new topics to delve into. She and another driver completed Operation Lifesaver training for highway-rail crossing safety, and as a further step to increase the students’ safety, the staff performs evacuation procedures every two months for each grade level.

Overall, Campbell says that strong working relationships and effective communication among the whole staff are the keys to the transportation department’s success.

“They’re devoted to their jobs and have a lot of respect for each other and what they do,” Campbell says. “It’s a team effort.”



Fun with maintenance

Proctor Public Schools, Proctor

Buses: 23
Students transported daily: 1,850
Schools served: 4
Staff: 18
Area of service: 150 square miles
Average driver wage: $16.23

The transportation department at Proctor Public Schools is blurring the line between mechanics and drivers. Unlike many school districts, drivers are encouraged to take an active role in bus maintenance and regularly assist with identifying and fixing problems.

Developing a positive relationship with the drivers can greatly help mechanics, says Curt Benassi, mechanic and assistant transportation director for the district. “To me, if there’s a little problem that is easy to fix that a driver recognizes, that’s better and cheaper than a major problem I would find later.”

Transportation Director George Saarela says Benassi’s troubleshooting ability is what makes him a good mechanic. “He is a self-motivator and he’s willing to try to find and fix the problem before just buying something new.”

Benassi dedicates part of the annual drivers’ orientation to bus mechanics and says he has seen a difference in how drivers approach maintenance issues. In previous years, Benassi has covered such topics as steering, brakes, pre-trip checklists and manual operation of wheelchair ramps.

Even with more mechanically-inclined drivers, Benassi still takes the opportunity to have some fun when things go wrong. He has started a collection of figures built from broken or worn-out bus parts.

A turkey displayed in his office has a body made from a bell housing, parking brake pads for wings, u-bolts for feet and a head that was formerly a tierod end. “One driver came in and said, ‘My van is leaning.’ Well, she busted six of eight leaf springs. She made the tail of my turkey,” says Benassi, laughing.

A work order was developed by the drivers and includes sections for different parts of the bus with words that describe various problems. The problem is circled and turned in to the maintenance office, no longer requiring in-person communication.

The open dialogue between all employees has proved to be especially helpful during tight budget times. When new pieces or parts cannot be purchased, it becomes even more crucial for everyone to work to maintain the existing ones.

“All I have to do is grease the front end components and they will last forever,” says Benassi. He inspects each bus every 2,000 miles to fix small problems and conduct preventive maintenance.



Dependability, come rain or shine

Tupelo Public School District, Tupelo

Buses: 65
Students transported daily: 4,200
Schools served: 16
Staff: 83
Average driver wage: $10.00

Kenneth Roberts, transportation director at Tupelo Public School District, finds that the best way to express the merit of his staff is to tell stories, which seem to occur on a regular basis. One of them originated only a few days prior to his interview with SBF.

In the midst of a rainstorm that flooded the area, one of the district’s buses wouldn’t start after a stop. Roberts happened to drive by and see it and alerted the maintenance staff. When the first mechanic arrived, he jumped right out of his truck and went to work on the bus, seemingly oblivious to the barrage of water assailing him.

“It was raining and flooding, but he was so focused on trying to get the bus going, he wasn’t worried about getting wet,” says Roberts. “I was out there with an umbrella trying to direct traffic, and I got soaking wet.”

A second mechanic soon arrived, and shortly after transferring the students to another bus, the pair had the “under-the-weather” bus up and running and got it back to the yard.

Another of Roberts’ stories illustrates the proactive nature found throughout his staff. When three of the drivers noticed that their routes were backtracking somewhat over each other, they quickly solved the problem by swapping certain stops with each other.

“They worked it out on their own and came in and told me what they did,” says Roberts. “They did a great job, and I didn’t have a hand in it.”

In a district with new schools starting up and enrollment constantly increasing, Roberts says that routing is one of the biggest challenges, and he depends on the drivers’ input.

He says that morale at Tupelo is especially high, and driver turnover has been down significantly the past few years, which is also important in a growing district.

With mechanics and drivers working closely together, the transportation department maintains an excellent safety record. The drivers contribute largely by turning in a log of their daily pre-inspections at the end of each month. And, of course, the mechanics are always anxious to jump right in on any problem. “I couldn’t find three better guys than who I have,” says Roberts.



Whirlwind service

Carl Junction R-1 School District, Carl Junction

Buses: 38
Students transported daily: 1,800
Schools served: 6
Staff: 31
Area of service: 160 square miles
Average driver wage: $17.00

Not even a natural disaster can keep the transportation department at Carl Junction R-1 School District from safely transporting its students to and from school.

At the end of the last school year, a tornado hit the transportation facility and destroyed one of the bus barns. Twenty-eight buses were damaged, ranging from shattered windows to gravel-blasted paint, but none was totaled. The tornado also ravaged the gas pump at the facility.

Over the course of the summer, the department outsourced repair work on the bus windows and paint to a company in a neighboring community. Meanwhile, the department focused on rebuilding the bus barn and restoring the fuel pump.

Despite the setback, the school bus operation was ready to roll for the first day of the new school year. Phil Cook, assistant superintendent and director of transportation, is confident the department will uphold its streak of superb safety inspection ratings from the state highway patrol. With 13 straight years at 90 percent or better and 100 percent for the latest six of those years, it seems that it would take something stronger than a tornado to knock Carl Junction out of its groove.

Cook gives due credit to head mechanic Ron Daniel, who has been with the district for 27 years and also serves as driver trainer, and his shop staff’s constant eye on preventive maintenance.

“Ron does a great job with our buses, so there are very few problems,” says Cook. He says the fleet of all Blue Bird buses is fully equipped with air brakes, and the consistency not only looks great but allows for more efficient maintenance and training.

For driver training, the department has a full, marked course in the parking lot. Daniel spends eight to 10 hours training the drivers each year and helps them by walking over the course as much as they need.

Driver turnover is low, which Cook attributes to the great working conditions as well as the high quality of students in the district. Even the occasional tornado can’t bring their spirits down.



School (bus) spirit is high

Belgrade Public Schools, Belgrade

Buses: 30
Students transported daily: 1,100
Schools served: 6
Staff: 27
Area of service: 250 square miles

Though the transportation department at Belgrade Public Schools serves the fastest- growing city in the state of Montana (13 percent population increase in the past two years), recruiting and retaining bus drivers is not a major challenge. Drivers in Belgrade stick around. “It is not unusual to have drivers with 25-plus years with the Belgrade School District,” notes Transportation Director Douglas Kellie. “It’s often said that the only way to get a job driving for us is when someone retires.”

What accounts for the high driver retention rate? Well, good wages for one, says Kellie. “Recruiting and retaining drivers usually is not a problem if the wages are fair.” But equally important, he notes, is staff camaraderie, which creates a positive work environment. “We often have birthday cake when a driver turns another year older. At times, baked goods show up from thankful parents and other school staff,” says Kellie.

But perhaps the best example of the Belgrade team spirit is the way the staff pulled together a few years ago when a driver fell ill. Staff members held a 72-hour campout in a school bus to raise money to cover medical expenses. “With the support of the great people of Belgrade and of others from all around the Gallatin Valley, I believe we collected a little over $12,000. It’s this kind of spirit that makes this group of bus drivers an honor to work with,” says Kellie.

Belgrade drivers receive training throughout the school year. Most drivers attend the Montana state conference each summer. “We also encourage our drivers to attend the Advance Driver Training program in Lewistown, Montana,” notes Kellie. The transportation department holds monthly safety meetings and publishes a weekly newsletter highlighting policies and procedures and featuring school bus news from across the state and nation.

All regularly-scheduled maintenance for Belgrade’s 30 buses is performed on site, under the direction of one main shop worker. “He does an awesome job keeping our fleet up and running,” says Kellie.

The operation’s greatest challenge this year will be meeting the needs of the increasing student population. So far, Kellie says his 27 drivers have been able to rise to the occasion. “I have no doubt that with the professional attitude that our bus drivers have, we will continue to meet this challenge,” he says.



Humor drives bus operation

Sutton Public Schools, Sutton

Buses: 7
Students transported daily: 200
Schools served: 1
Staff: 7

With an astounding number of responsibilities to tend to, Bobbie Itzen, transportation supervisor as well as driver/secretary/mechanic for Sutton Public Schools, admits that she often needs something to keep her from going nuts. “Sometimes in this business, you really have to have a sense of humor,” she says. “Otherwise, it gets pretty tense.”

At a small district in a small town, Itzen does a remarkable job of transporting the students with extremely limited staff and resources. She handles the majority of bus maintenance herself, outsourcing only the bigger jobs that can’t be done at their facility.

Besides herself, there are three full-time drivers and three substitutes. Reserving enough buses and drivers for regular routes as well as activities is part of what Itzen calls “a constant flow of challenges.”

She says the success of the operation depends largely upon her drivers and their ability to function autonomously. “Each driver has his or her own personality, so each bus has its own set of rules,” she says, “If there is a problem, the driver will handle it internally.”

The transportation staffers are close and often spend time together outside of work. A favorite activity of one of the drivers is “coon calling,” which entails playing a tape of noises over a loudspeaker that attract raccoons and either hunting them or just observing their curiosity. The group recently went out on such an excursion, sans guns, because Itzen jokes that someone probably would have shot someone else.

“It was comedy in the making,” she says. While the tape played, several raccoons came out of the woods and even crawled around on their pickup truck. “We do a lot of neat things as a group,” says Itzen.

In addition to her multiple duties at Sutton, Itzen also currently serves as VP of the Nebraska School Transportation Association. In that role, she has focused on keeping transporters across the state as informed as possible on updates in laws and requirements, and she has also worked at increasing membership at a time when budget cuts have kept many people from participating. In a few months, Itzen will take over as the association’s president.

“My reign of terror will continue,” she says, joking.



Ready for anything

Humboldt County School District, Winnemucca

Buses: 48
Students transported daily: 1,200
Schools served: 11
Staff: 16
Average driver wage: $14.00

The terrain in Humboldt County School District may be flat and relatively free of hazards such as steep grades and black ice, but on a field trip southwest to Lake Tahoe, for example, a driver can encounter all of the above. For that reason, driver foreman Ina Martin prepares her staff for any possible driving environment with a vast array of training videos from around the country.

“With the videos, they see all different kinds of things that have come up through the years with different drivers,” she says.

Martin has carefully selected an agenda of 67 videos — covering everything from loading special-needs students to uphill/downhill driving to student management — that the drivers watch and discuss during training. Martin says the videos are also convenient resources for drivers to come back to when a question arises that they are unsure how to handle.

The result of the training is a dedicated staff that Martin says works well on its own as well as with the group when necessary. “Most of our drivers work independently, because they get here at different times and leave at different times,” she says. “They are a strength in themselves, because we can really rely on them to get the job done without somebody overseeing them every minute.”

In terms of functioning well together, the same goes for the maintenance staff. Martin says the mechanics do a superb job overall on the buses and especially excel in prioritizing their time. “If something has to be done ASAP, they drop everything, and if they have to work together to get it done, they do,” she says.

Communication remains the cornerstone of success at Humboldt, and Martin says that low turnover has allowed the department to develop an especially comfortable and friendly working environment.

To illustrate the team’s dedication to pupil transportation, Martin gives a recent example. During the first week of school, many students got on the wrong buses and wound up lost. Martin says the drivers went outside of their normal responsibilities to get everyone to school or home at the end of the day. “All of them go over and beyond,” she says.



Special needs, special service

Easter Seals Special Transit Service, Manchester

Buses: 80
Students transported daily: 800
Schools served: 50
Staff: 125
Area of service: 200 square miles

Considering the extraordinary amount of precaution and sensitivity involved in special-needs transportation, providing door-to-door service for one school district is an impressive feat on its own. Successfully providing the same for two school districts, though, is no less than outstanding.

In all, Special Transit Service (STS) shuttles 800 special-needs students each school day, accounting for 90 percent of the service for Manchester School District and 100 percent for Londonderry School District. And the operation manages to do it all while maintaining superior levels of safety and customer satisfaction.

“Our hallmark has been cost-effective service while providing a high quality of service,” says VP Fred Roberge. He names passenger safety as a key concern and significant challenge in dealing with special-needs students.

In that respect, STS has a complete, in-house training program for drivers that is specific to special-needs transportation, covering topics from disability awareness to passenger assistance techniques to behavior intervention training. The operation also works closely with the districts and families to understand each student’s disability and pinpoint anything that may cause concern during transportation.

Roberge points out the extra responsibility the drivers carry. “They’re really much more than bus drivers in many respects — communicating with the schools, making the bus an extension of the school day and good management when we do have issues,” he says.

Roberge also stresses the importance of drivers’ ability to respond to critical incidents, which he says may only occur in one of 999 rides but will be the ones people hear about.

Operations at STS are coordinated by a fleet manager and operations manager, who Roberge says maintain an excellent working relationship. “The communication between operations and maintenance is always critical in terms of driver satisfaction,” says Roberge.

Continual high ratings on state inspections as well as an Easter Seals award for innovation are clear indications of the entire operation’s strength, but STS still strives to improve its service in any way possible. Currently, the company is implementing route map software systems as well as integrating onboard vehicle locators.



Good signs for a great fleet

Egg Harbor Township School District, Egg Harbor Township

Buses: 121
Students transported daily: 7,000
Schools served: 17
Staff: 121
Area of service: 68 square miles

The transportation staff at Egg Harbor Township School District is getting a lot of recognition these days. Besides the SBF award presented here, a local newspaper is doing a story on the department and what they do to get the buses up and running for the start of the school year.

Additionally, in what could be called a more “grassroots” form of publicity, a resident family regularly posts a large plywood sign on their front yard with messages for the drivers. At the beginning of the school year, the sign welcomes them back from summer break. At the end of the year, the sign reads, “Thank you Egg Harbor Township school bus drivers for another job well done.”

“That’s really nice, because you never really hear the good things — you always hear the complaints,” says Warren Fipp, director of transportation.

Fipp says his department is fortunate to have built a strong relationship with the local board of education. Though money is tight in the district, the administrators are gracious in providing funds for new equipment or personnel that will contribute to ensuring the safety of the students. The department recently purchased 18 new buses and is upgrading fleet technology with digital cameras and a new computer program to track maintenance.

The district is growing rapidly, but Fipp’s team is quick to adapt and make necessary changes. A policy implemented this year will limit parents to one pick-up in the morning and one in the afternoon. Fipp also recently hired a specialist to conduct all the safety training for new drivers as well as some individual training for senior drivers. Furthermore, the department just developed a new, 130-page driver’s manual to provide the most current information possible.

The operation benefits greatly from the depth of experience throughout the staff. “Everyone here has driven before — even the dispatchers,” says Fipp. “It’s very important that they know the routes and what the drivers go through every day.”

Fipp also stresses the importance of his maintenance crew, which has garnered praise from notoriously strict inspectors. “The DMV said we do an extremely good job, so they’re very happy with us,” he says. “Mechanics are the ones who really are behind the scenes and deserve a lot more credit than they ever get.”


Related Topics: Great Fleets

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