75 Great Ways to Improve Your Operation (Part I)

<I>SBF</i> staff editors Steve Hirano, Thomas McMahon and Albert Neal and many members of the pup
Posted on October 1, 2004

1. Give subs their fair share

Like many other school bus operations nationwide, Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, Calif., found it difficult to attract and retain substitute drivers.

Dennis Williams, director of the 87-bus transportation department, says the root of the problem was that, over the years, unions had negotiated to raise wages for regular drivers at the district.

Yet as regular drivers’ wages gradually increased, the pay level for substitutes stayed the same. The gap between the two eventually became significant. “We had cases where our substitutes were being paid $2 to $3 less than our regular drivers,” says Williams.

Working with the district’s human resources department, the transportation operation reached a solution. The pay level for substitute drivers would be tied in with that of beginning permanent drivers. So in addition to allowing more money for substitutes at that time, the move ensured that whenever the union negotiated for higher wages, the substitutes’ pay would tag along.

As a result, candidates began knocking on the transportation department’s door, whereas before, they tended to be in short supply.

“[Substitutes’ pay] is something all operations should look at,” says Williams. “It can be an oversight on everyone’s part, because there’s no one to negotiate for them.”


2. Let your light shine down

When I began driving school buses in 1983, I witnessed drivers and monitors yelling when trying to get the attention of a busload of students or a student at the rear. While this works in most cases, sometimes it seemed to only cause the students to become louder, angry or frightened. It also seemed to stress the driver.

I soon discovered that if I flashed the bus interior dome lights, the students almost immediately quieted down to see what was going on. I then made it a rule on my route that if the students saw the dome lights flashing, they should be quiet and listen to my instructions.

Later, when I began training drivers and monitors, I asked that they use this technique, and many seasoned drivers said they had positive results. I also received fewer complaint calls from parents that the driver or monitor was mean and screamed at the students. Now that I am at Texas School for the Deaf, where verbal communication wouldn’t be very effective anyway, the technique works especially well.

— Submitted by Valerie Meyer, transportation coordinator at the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin.


3. Think outside the training box

We’ve developed several innovative classes over the years. For instance, we teach a three-hour unit on map book and manifest reading to familiarize original applicants with techniques for getting around easily in San Diego. It can be overwhelming to jump from the classroom experience to one-on-one behind-the-wheel to testing and then immediately be required to get out there and begin picking up students.

Our manifests are extremely detailed; important items may be missed if we don’t instruct our trainees regarding all of that necessary information.

We also have developed a field trip class, which is specifically geared for those drivers who wish to drive trips beyond the city limits. The course is in both the classroom and the bus and includes driving in rural areas, logbook training and emphasis of the problems that can arise on field trips if not fully prepared. We’ve done Friday night classes in which drivers are actively involved in activities encountered when driving in the dark. Both of these classes involve active participation and have been well received.

Another class we have developed is the two-hour Basic Survival Sign Language course. Drivers are encouraged to take the classes whenever they can to develop their skills. Additionally, some of our special classes come about because of current events in transportation.

— Submitted by Sharon Waterman, retired, former instructor at San Diego Unified School District


4. Stow medical information properly

Although there are no federal regulatory standards requiring student medical information on school buses, here are some options for the storage of this information:


  • In a well-marked, preferably fire-retardant pouch, carried by the monitor.


  • On the dashboard or firewall between the entrance door and the driver.


  • On the rear of the partition directly inside the vehicle.


  • On the right side of the header above the windshield.


  • On the bulkhead above and behind the driver’s seat.


    5. Stay in the limelight

    “Supervisors need to be visible,” says Donna Hackett, transportation supervisor at Pembroke Central School District in Corfu, N.Y.

    Whether it’s around the bus yard, on the buses, at schools or at board meetings, Hackett says that establishing your presence and expressing interest are vital parts of the job.

    Hackett, who is just beginning her second year as transportation supervisor, says that her predecessor tended to hole up in his office and neglect relationships with staff as well as the customers. Hackett was a driver for 14 years while he was supervisor.

    “As a driver, I didn’t know whether he cared how we were doing,” Hackett says. When she succeeded him as supervisor, she knew that this was something that needed to change.

    Hackett strives to show her staff that she wants to see what they’re doing. The best way to do that, she says, is to ride the buses and show up at schools during loading and unloading times.

    Hackett says that students love to see someone new on the bus, and when she has to speak with them or their parents about behavior or other issues, they already know who she is.

    Attending board of education meetings is another element of the job that Hackett says is important to fulfill. She asks to be put on meeting agendas.

    Hackett says the department hadn’t had good rapport with district administration in the past. Now, as supervisor, she speaks to them about transportation matters and mentions changes she’d like to make.

    “I found that the board had no clue about maintaining certification and other things that we do every year as bus drivers, so it’s very enlightening to them,” she says.


    6. Have an exit strategy

    In an emergency, a school bus could be filled with smoke or muddy water. Drivers should count seatbacks to find emergency exits and note exactly which row of seats each exit is located.

    Drivers should practice opening emergency exits, as window and roof hatch latches can be tricky to operate. They should be opened every day during pre-trip inspections.

    To exit from an emergency window, go out feet first, face down. To help support you as you lower yourself to the ground, find the rub rails (or the rear tires if the emergency exit is over them) on the outside of the bus with your feet. Use spotters to avoid an injury while you practice. Window frames can be sharp and could scrape your stomach. If possible, use a coat to pad the window frame.

    To exit from an emergency door, always “sit and slide.” Never jump out, even if you’re physically fit. It’s a long way down, and you could twist an ankle or injure yourself in some other way. Use spotters to avoid injury during practice.

    — Source: The Pupil Transportation Safety Institute’s “Head Start Driver & Monitor Pre-Service Training”


    7. A box for your thoughts

    To encourage input from staff members and identify problems, Brian Whitta, a pupil transportation consultant for the Ohio Department of Education, recommends establishing a box in which employees can place concerns and suggestions.

    Hold regular meetings with all members of the operation. A few days before each meeting, put together an agenda including any issues that have been deposited in the box. Doing so will give all staff members time to consider the problem and come up with ideas to share in the meeting.

    “Allowing employees to take ownership of an issue and accepting input from them is paramount to increasing morale while decreasing negativity,” says Whitta.


    8. Optimize loading/unloading efficiency

    Does your operation have a written procedure requiring parents to meet the bus at their stop?

    Are school staff members present when children are boarding buses?

    Is there a system, such as color-coding, to help children board the correct bus? Children should be told not to identify their bus by the driver’s face. What if the driver is absent one day?

    Although all Oceanside (Calif.) schools have excellent boarding experience, the best loading system I’ve worked with is at San Luis Rey Elementary School. The principal is the leader and makes certain the entire teaching and office staff is involved in the process.

    It works as follows (for eight 84-passenger and three small special-needs buses): For consistency, the same eight regular-education teachers willingly volunteer to be there every afternoon during the school year, and they remain until all the buses are gone (special-ed kids are individually escorted to the buses).

    Each bus has a unique 12-by-12-inch color card in the first student window. Drivers are given all colors and must place the correct color in the window before arriving at each elementary school. An upper-grade student is given a corresponding color flag on a six-foot pole.

    Students assemble on a grassy area, and as buses arrive in random order, the student with the flag slowly leads his or her group single file to the correct bus. The flag is then inserted in a fence pole by the bus door so stragglers can easily see the color for their bus.

    This school also has kindergarten orientation before the school year starts and spends about 30 minutes on bus procedures. On the first day of the school year, all K-3 bus passengers are given two color-coded, hospital-type wristbands (with the drop-off location written in by the morning driver), one for their wrist and one to loop on their backpack. The wristbands are used for a few weeks when the school year starts and for new K-3 students during the year.

    Amazingly, there is no confusion and no misplaced students when loading the eight 84-passenger buses. I believe the extra expense and effort is well worth it.

    The parking situation at San Luis Rey is cramped, so other staff members direct parent traffic to an area away from the buses. Imagine a school where most of the staff is out with the buses every day. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Lack of a good system and enough staff to oversee the system results in a more chaotic boarding process with the inevitable misdirected students.

    Although this school is outstanding in handling afternoon bus loading, the school bus drivers are also very much a part of the success. Some attend kindergarten orientation, and all of them check wristbands to be certain the kids get on the correct bus and off at the correct stop.

    — Submitted by John Farr, school transportation consultant


    9. ... And polo shirts for all

    The idea of wearing a uniform to work every day may seem like a potential burden, but when the uniform is just a polo or button-up shirt emblazoned with the name of your operation, it can actually be a comfortable and convenient way to go.

    At Orange (Calif.) Unified School District, the bus drivers actually requested uniform shirts. Pam McDonald, director of transportation, took the proposal to the superintendent and then worked with human resources and the drivers’ union. The result was a uniform committee that established attire for transportation as well as the nutrition services and maintenance departments.

    Transportation staff members now receive a jacket and a set of five shirts, which can include any combination of gray polos and blue button-up shirts. Staffers are free to wear any dark pants or dark knee-length shorts.

    While the original cost of providing the shirts didn’t come out of the transportation budget, McDonald says the uniform program costs the department about $9,000 per year for replacement and upkeep.

    Besides contributing to a more professional image for the drivers, the uniforms are a boost to morale.

    “We stress teamwork, and one of the great ways we feel we’ve accomplished that is by providing the shirts,” says McDonald. “It makes everyone feel like a team.”


    10. Year-round roadeos

    One of the problems we had at our operation was trying to get drivers to drive through a roadeo course. Setting the entire course up was kind of prohibitive because of drivers’ time and our ability to set up the entire course and leave it set up. Each month, buses are required to come in for their state inspection.

    Therefore, we now set up one of the roadeo events during each inspection day (8 per month) and have a trainer assigned to help drivers go through the one event before or after their inspection.

    We now have more than 70 percent of our drivers going through the course, whereas we used to have only about 10 percent of the drivers go through the course once a year. The added benefit is that the roadeo training is now emphasized on a monthly basis instead of once a year.

    — Submitted by Mark Lindstrom, director of transportation at the Troup County School System in LaGrange, Ga.


    11. Boost morale all around

    Anderson Coach & Travel in Greenville, Pa., makes numerous efforts to bolster morale not only with its staff, but with the passengers they transport as well. Happier students, after all, will more than likely lead to happier drivers.

    Alice Smith, school route manager, notes several ways the company rewards the faithful. For students, they conduct a “Ridership of the Month” competition. Operators nominate two students for improved behavior and safety practices. Each of those students wins a school bus book bag, a special breakfast event and a certificate.

    For students that have been difficult in terms of behavior but then clean up their act, the company gives notes of appreciation for their improvement. Additionally, operators pass out cards to students on their birthday.

    On the employee side, Anderson Coach & Travel is duly generous. The company treats its bus operators to three breakfasts during the year. Sticking with the “meal” theme, a picnic rings in each school year. The event isn’t all fun and games, however: “At the same time, we have a short business meeting with any new information we may have to share,” says Smith.


    12. Incentive influences driver attendance

    I offer a $25 bonus incentive each month to my drivers who do not miss a driving trip during that month. This is a great way to cut down on driver absenteeism. Each month the driver gets paid their normal monthly salary plus the $25 bonus, if they have not missed an a.m. or p.m. driving trip. The program has been very effective. My drivers call out in emergency situations only. They rarely take time off just because they want to anymore.

    — Submitted by Tammy Doane, owner, Doane & Co. School Bus Contractor, Blaine, Tenn.


    13. Choose charter wisely

    Whether you’re relying on an existing vendor or choosing a new charter transportation company, it’s a good idea to make sure their safety record is satisfactory and compliant with federal motor carrier safety regulations.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) keeps records on every bus company that operates in more than one state. To access this information, all you need is the company’s U.S. DOT number. With this, you can use the “Safer System,” located at, which provides up-to-date history on the company, including:


  • Whether the company has authority to transport passengers in interstate commerce.


  • The company’s accident history, safety rating and insurance status.


  • Performance during roadside inspections.


  • Whether the company has been examined by a law enforcement or regulatory professional.

    Beware that some bus companies offering interstate service have not registered for a U.S. DOT number as required. If you are offered interstate service from a bus company without a U.S. DOT number, report it to your Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) field office.

    An FMCSA staff person can also provide you with guidance and assistance in hiring a safe bus company. For more information, visit

    — Source: FMCSA’s “Keeping Kids Safe: A Guide to Hiring Charter Transportation”


    14. Swing the teenage vote

    Getting teenagers to ride the school bus can be a daunting task. Teenagers commonly think that school buses are for little kids and that they are simply “uncool.” Although this is a natural progression students make as they grow up, there are measures you can take to make riding the bus a more agreeable experience for teenage passengers. Here are three suggestions:

    Radios and refreshments. Kids often think that it’s much “cooler” riding buses with music playing. Being allowed to have food and drinks on the bus will also tempt them. Just remind them to keep the trash off the floor.

    Strike a chord. Most teenagers are unaware of the benefits of riding the bus. Communicate to them the right message — that it’s the safest form of ground transportation, it’s free, it saves money on gas and it saves them the cost of paying for school parking. It also ensures that they will get to school on time (most of the time) and they can relax during the ride.

    Be a role model. As adolescence is a hard time, the school bus driver can make a difference by being a role model and sounding board to teenagers.


    15. Learn to drive with TLC

    Bus drivers who transport children who lack upper body strength or have brittle bone syndrome need to learn to drive with exceptional care. This means making smooth starts, turns and stops. One bus driver experienced in transporting vulnerable children said she drives “as though there are eggs under the accelerator and brake pedals.” Drivers also need to be aware of speed bumps and pot holes.

    Click here for Great Ways 16 through 30

  • Related Topics: behavior management, driver recruitment/retention, driver training, morale

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