A veteran shop manager and technician shares advice on creating a checklist that catches the little things and helps to make complete repairs.
Cleveland Municipal School District (Cleveland)
Fleet composition: 592 buses, 614 total
Total shop staff: 40
Number of bus bays: 16
Annual mileage: 7 million
Students transported: 35,000
Schools served: 200
“Every new problem helps staff members expand their knowledge, develop their character and strengthen their work ethic,” says Howard C. Strong Jr., fleet maintenance manager.
The department, which employs 37 mechanics, three assistant maintenance managers and one maintenance manager, is spread out over three facilities. Each garage has its own inventory of parts and includes a drive-through bus wash.
The department has computerized its operation to help track work orders and inventory for nearly 600 buses. “We use a combination of TMT Transman software and the ISIS program set up through International Truck and Engine Corp.,” says Strong. “The TMT software drives our maintenance facilities.”
Three levels of preventive maintenance are used to keep buses in top shape. Tough inspections by the Ohio Highway Patrol also help to keep the mechanics on their toes. “Our staff evaluates and inspects every component of the school bus to pass an extreme, rigid safety inspection by troopers,” Strong says.
Mechanics receive factory training annually. “This covers cutting-edge technology on engine computer systems and the new technology on antilock brake systems,” Strong explains.
As an example of the new technology being implemented at CMSD, Strong points to the particulate filter traps being installed on buses as part of the Clean School Bus USA program sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Improvisation is another strength of the department. “My mechanics amaze me on a daily basis with their innovations,” Strong says. “You will see them do everything from make custom-made tools to fabricate body panels and other parts that are no longer available.”
Elbow grease key to award-winning program
Community Consolidated School District 15 (Palatine, Ill.
Fleet composition: 138 buses, 143 total vehicles
Total shop staff: 11
Number of bus bays: 6
Annual mileage: 1.6 million
Students transported: 10,266
Schools served: 26
The maintenance staff of Community Consolidated School District 15 is no stranger to hard work. And that high level of effort has paid off. The transportation staff received the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s Leland E.G. Larson award for quality student transportation last year, and the school district received the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.
The maintenance program for District 15 has been dubbed “one of the best in the state of Illinois,” the result of a surprise state inspection that witnessed the passing of all of the district’s 130-plus buses.
“I think one of the things that makes us unique is that we choose to focus on care and safety,” says Bill Willetts, transportation director for the district. “Our on-time delivery of students is 98 percent — something that would not be possible if our buses were not maintained properly.”
Training at District 15 includes attending mechanic workshops held by the Illinois Association for Pupil Transportation as well as other workshops taught by industry-related companies like Blue Bird or Leece-Neville alternators. Mechanics are also urged to put together their own monthly meetings so that any concerns can be addressed right away.
The shop is trained to track and perform preventive maintenance in four areas: grease service, major service, brake inspections and valve adjustment. Fleet Vision software is used to track both preventive maintenance and parts for all district vehicles, and a computer lab helps mechanics stay abreast of current shop information.
“If there ever is a question as to should we or should we not do the work on a bus, the shop always errs on the side of ‘Do it — let’s make it safer,’” Willetts says.
That attitude sets the tone for an outstanding program.
“Our people are exceptional,” Willetts says “They go above and beyond. All the data shows that.”
Deptford Township Board of Education (Deptford, N.J.)
Fleet composition: 57 buses, 82 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 3
Number of bus bays: 3
Annual mileage: 764,000
Students transported: 3,500
Schools served: 8
When Joe Schaffer joined the staff as head mechanic at the Deptford Township Board of Education in Deptford, N.J., he used his years of experience with General Motors and Federal Express to implement new programs that increased the department’s efficiency and saved the district money.
“You have to remember you’re dealing with taxpayers’ money with the school district,” Schaffer says. “It’s not a profit organization and you have to try to do the most repairs you can at the cheapest cost.”
Schaffer has implemented numerous changes at the department over the past six years, including a new preventive maintenance routine and a new tire program.
His tire program tracks wear patterns and tire life and, by testing different brands of tires, he’s been able to get the maximum tire life on 82 vehicles, tremendously reducing costs.
“I’ve tried different brands of tires on different buses to see how long they last,” Schaffer says. He has found that different tires tend to perform better on different buses, depending on their weight.
Aside from the importance of cost-reducing programs, Schaffer says that teamwork is extremely important in running a smooth shop and scoring well on inspection ratings.
“My two guys and I have worked together before,” he adds. “We use each other’s input and have confidence in each other.”
Although ASE certification is not required at Deptford, Schaffer has earned Master ASE Technician status, and his two mechanics also have obtained ASE certifications.
Schaffer and his staff receive a lot of training from their vendors at no cost to the school district. Once a year they attend a mechanics workshop in Atlantic City, N.J., where they receive updated information on state inspections and attend seminars dealing with new types of brakes and other new systems.
Huntington Coach Corp. (Huntington Station, N.Y.
Fleet composition: 675 buses, 700 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 46
Number of bus bays: 25
Annual mileage: 9 million
Students transported: 25,000
“Our company’s crowning achievement is our maintenance department,” says Brendan Clifford, VP of operations. And the facts prove it.
All five of Huntington Coach Corp.’s separate facilities have scored at or near the top of state inspections for many years, with consistently less than a 1 percent failure rate. As a result, the company has won several consecutive New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner’s Safety Awards.
One of the keys of the company’s success is the depth of experience running the maintenance department. Led by VP and GM Kevin Kalberer, the 14 shop management staffers have an average of 13 years’ experience with Huntington Coach. Kalberer is a 26-year company veteran.
With rigorous DOT inspections every six months, Huntington Coach focuses on a strong preventive maintenance routine to keep all its buses in top shape. Each vehicle undergoes two “A” services and at least two “B” services per calendar year, with mileage intervals ranging from 3,000 to 6,000. The “A” service, in which the mechanic has a long checklist of items to inspect, is the more extensive of the two.
Oil and fluids are checked daily, and every two to three weeks, buses with air brakes are scheduled for adjustments. In the shop, the mechanics adjust brakes, gauge brake lining and document readings for scheduling of future brake replacement. At the same time, the staff is on the lookout for any other defects small or large.
The maintenance program at Huntington Coach also depends heavily on the drivers, who are trained to understand their vehicle and all its components. The driver training course includes a five-hour maintenance section with thorough instruction on such topics as how to properly fill out the vehicle inspection report.
“The drivers are the eyes and ears of our maintenance program between services,” says Kalberer. “And it’s the sense of ownership and pride in all our employees that allows us to achieve our success.”
Highline School District (Burien, Wash.)
Fleet composition: 103 buses, 278 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 7
Number of bus bays: 7
Annual mileage: 1.2 million
Students transported: 6,500
Schools served: 32
Vehicle fleet manager Timothy McShane and the maintenance staff at Highline School District take great pride in completing the Washington State Patrol annual inspection. They’ve had exceptional results for six consecutive years.
“Trying to keep as many vehicles on the road as possible is always a challenge,” says McShane. “We are trying to keep our down fleet less than 4 percent at any time.”
Having a swing shift plays a big role in keeping the majority of the buses on the road, according to McShane.
“We service all our buses at night so that we don’t take them away from the drivers,” he says.
Excellent relationships between drivers and mechanics help accomplish the department’s outstanding inspection results. Whenever a driver finds something wrong with a bus, a mechanic is notified.
“We have a system that gives the drivers a receipt of what they’ve written up,” McShane says. “And when the job is finished, they get the original write-up back so they know it’s been completed.”
A 26-year veteran at Highline School District, McShane knows how to best maintain his fleet. Prior to taking over as fleet manager six years ago, he was a mechanic at the district for 20 years.
Every four to six weeks (roughly every 1,500 miles), the maintenance department performs a light service on all buses. This Type-A inspection is mostly a safety check and includes inspecting brakes and tires and greasing the doors and window mechanisms.
The mechanics are always adding to their knowledge base. Whenever a new bus is purchased, they go through factory training from the bus manufacturers.
“We also have some self-learning time, where we provide time for each mechanic to read manuals and information on the equipment,” McShane adds. Additionally, mechanics get a 25-cents-per-hour incentive if they garner ASE certifications.
School Board of Manatee County (Bradenton, Fla.)
Fleet composition: 251 buses, 463 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 37
Number of bus bays: 10
Annual mileage: 3.3 million
Size of facility: 10,650 sq. ft.
Schools served: 44
When it comes to servicing the 200-plus buses in its fleet, the School Board of Manatee County’s vehicle maintenance department always puts safety at the top of its priority list. The staff continuously looks for new ways to improve and keep its customers (the children) happy and, most importantly, safe, says Donald W. Ross, supervisor of vehicle maintenance. The crew considers safety a top concern because most of the employees have their own children riding the buses.
One of the most important changes the department has made was to expand the hours of operation. Now the department operates up to 17½ hours per day rather than 12 hours, with a dedicated staff that works from the first bus out at 4:30 a.m. to the last bus at 10:30 p.m. The department is also on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to provide customers with a sense of comfort. “By expanding our hours, we now feel that we have given more time for thorough inspections,” Ross says.
To keep safety up to par, the department refuses to skimp on technological improvements. Self-audits are scheduled and databases continually updated so buses are regularly maintained. Steps such as increasing oil change intervals have resulted in significant savings.
Department personnel are encouraged to regularly attend seminars on chassis, body and electrical diagnostics to further the advancement of knowledge and standardization in the industry. And this type of care is not just limited to the vehicles. To retain qualified mechanics, the department provides incentive programs, like providing supplemental pay for any ASE or state certifications.
Manatee County boasts a total of 266 years of experience within its staff, which is made of 36 positions. “Everyone has ownership in our system, “Ross says. “The results we have taken from input given have created a program that can be modeled for everyone in the state.”
Middleton-Cross Plains Area Schools (Middleton, Wis.)
Fleet composition: 60 buses, 100 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 3
Number of bus bays: 6
Annual mileage: 500,000
Students transported: 4,700
Schools served: 11
The maintenance team at Middleton-Cross Plains Area Schools runs its shop like an Indianapolis 500 pit crew. The strengths of each mechanic are called upon daily, and the results are seldom less than superior, says Gary Johnson, transportation director.
“Our greatest strength lies in our ability to work together,” he says. “My mechanics divide up the jobs according to their expertise, and they treat the vehicles like they belong to them.”
Head mechanic Randy Zander, a 13-year district veteran, and assistant mechanics Kent Taplin (12 years) and Ted Helleckson (15 years) run a tight ship, but everyone is involved in the preventive maintenance (PM) program.
Drivers deposit slips with descriptions of any problems they’ve experienced with their buses into a centrally located receptacle. Two bus washers report any problems they find. A part-time clerk tracks all of the shop’s labor and maintenance procedures using VersaTrans’ Fleet Vision.
Buses are rotated through the shop regularly based on usage and daily assignments. Johnson prefers things this way, as route lengths vary for each bus. Maintenance based on mileage alone, he says, would not be efficient. Extracurricular field trips are also factored into the PM scheduling.
The staff stays on top of any technical updates or changes by attending work-shops and training programs
“The Wisconsin School Bus Association (WSBA) has a program that our mechanics attend regularly,” says Johnson. “We also have a close relationship with our local school bus distributors. They also keep us abreast of anything new.”
The WSBA has conferences twice a year and Middleton sends at least one mechanic each time. Head mechanic Zander has close ties with Thomas Built Buses’ dealers, who’ll often share their expertise when trouble arises.
Paradise Valley Unified School District #69 (Phoenix)
Fleet composition: 177 buses, 327 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 20
Number of bus bays: 8
Annual mileage: 2.2 million
Students transported: 9,431
Schools served: 44
For two consecutive years, the maintenance department at Paradise Valley Unified has garnered perfect scores on Department of Public Safety inspections. Doug Curry, vehicle maintenance supervisor, says this is due largely to its diligence with keeping up on new technologies. “We must get into the 21st century,” he says. “We’re constantly keeping up with technology, which is a big thing in maintenance nowadays.”
And with the help of a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the school district is indeed up to speed with the modern world. Worth $300,000, the grant was used toward the implementation of ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) and particulate emissions traps.
Paradise Valley’s entire fleet has since been switched to ULSD use. As for the traps, because they cost several thousands of dollars each, only 20 of the district’s 177 school buses have had them installed. Yet the benefits are clear.
“[The trap] definitely cleans up the particulate matter, up to 90 percent,” says Curry. “Even without it, there’s a 70 percent decrease [when using ULSD].”
The district is also running a 10-bus pilot project that combines a Zonar Systems program with Ron Turley Associates fleet management software. The pre- and post-trip program has saved staff considerable time when creating work orders.
But being a tech-savvy department is only one aspect of managing the fleet. Communication is a crucial part of the relationship between drivers and mechanics.
“Their relationship is great, and that’s what we preach here,” says Curry. “The driver is in that bus eight hours a day and is probably the biggest preventive maintenance program we have.”
Paso Robles Public Schools (Paso Robles, Calif.)
Fleet composition: 29 buses, 94 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 3
Number of bus bays: 2
Annual mileage: 400,000
Students transported: 2,000
Schools served: 10
For lead mechanic Billy Bowles, the key to running a top maintenance program is being prepared for and reacting to the challenges that occur daily.
In Paso Robles, which lies near the notorious San Andreas fault, the challenges often include earthquakes. In December, Bowles had lowered a school bus on a lift “not even a minute-and-a-half” before a 6.5-magnitude quake hit the area.
“We evacuated the building, went out to the center of the yard and watched about 25 buses dancing around,” says Bowles.
As far as foreseeable challenges go, Bowles and his crew keep to a strict preventive maintenance schedule and take aim on minor problems before they become bigger ones. Helping to track and save time with that process is a computer program designed specifically for the department by a school administrator.
Instructor Kelly Jenal-Stainbrook emphasizes the impact Bowles has had on the department since he signed on four years ago. “We had one of the oldest fleets in the county, and we were really struggling with even minor repairs,” she says. Within a year of Bowles being hired, he had drastically improved the condition of the fleet as well as the state terminal inspection results.
“Our California Highway Patrol inspection officer has said that everything is at the top of the line considering the age of our vehicles,” says Jenal-Stainbrook.
Bowles’ contributions aren’t limited to maintenance, though. During a time last school year when several drivers were out, Bowles and his one other mechanic at the time — both licensed school bus drivers — took over runs and still managed to keep the shop in order. “We had a little overtime last year,” he quips.
Bowles also strives to maintain a strong relationship with the drivers. Working with Jenal-Stainbrook in training to foster drivers’ understanding of their buses, as well as attending driver meetings to discuss maintenance issues, are just a few ways he makes everyone’s job easier.
Plummer/Worley Joint School District #44 (Plummer, Idaho)
Fleet composition: 14 buses, 21 vehicles total
Total shop staff: 1
Number of bus bays: 4
Annual mileage: 680 (daily)
Students transported: 350
Schools served: 3
Bob Curley is a one-man maintenance department, and he is as humble as he is dedicated. The school bus technician for Plummer/Worley Joint School District #44 is quick to acknowledge the efforts of his support system rather than take the credit for himself.
“The drivers help out a lot,” he says. “They’ll let me know if anything’s wrong. A driver knows his or her own bus.”
And Curley’s commitment to the job is evident. He works after hours and on the road as needed, all the while keeping the facility organized and well managed.
“His shop is clean enough that you can eat off the floor,” says Carl Richel, transportation supervisor. “He really takes his job to heart.”
Amazingly, as if being a lone shop employee weren’t enough, Curley continues to hold another job as a substitute driver, the position he initially held before taking over the maintenance program four years ago. And there have been situations where he’s had to work both shifts at the same time.
During one incident, for example, Curley was driving students to school when he received a call that another bus had broken down. After that morning run, he drove to the stranded driver’s location, switched buses and worked on the sidelined vehicle until he was able to bring it back to the shop.
“It does get kind of tough sometimes,” admits Curley. “You’re trying to get things done, get the buses back out there, and then you have to drive a bus for somebody at night. It gets a little hard, but I manage.”
Although Curley shies away from the spotlight, his efforts hardly go unnoticed. “Because he had worked for us as a substitute driver, I knew his work ethic,” says Richel. “That’s why I pushed so hard to hire him. He has an excellent attitude, is here every day and makes safety his number one concern in taking care of the drivers and the kids.”
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