75 Great Ways to Improve Your Operation (Part III)

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

31. Get a library card

Having trouble finding service manuals for older-model buses? Fear not. Most dealerships keep comprehensive service libraries where manuals are stored — even for models no longer sold by the dealer. Dealers are typically happy to let you borrow or consult with them. If this fails, try another local school district, which may have its own backlog of manuals.


32. Heat helps reduce maintenance costs

Temperatures in Minnesota can drop well below zero during the winter months. This often equates to canceled classes at local schools and sidelined buses at different transportation operations.

But Joe Riggles, owner of Riggles Bus Co. in Cass Lake, Minn., houses his school buses inside a heated garage, something he says helps to decrease maintenance-related costs.

A heated bus garage can help reduce cold-weather operation problems by reducing engine idle time. As such, buses are always warm and heater motors on the buses last longer. Ice and road salt melt and flow away when the temperature of the buses is warmer and drivers have an easier time performing pre-trip inspections.

Heating costs run about $5 per day for the two garages, which operate from December to February. Five mini-buses and four large buses are housed in the garages.

The smaller facility has a 90,000 BTU hanging liquid propane furnace. The larger garage has a 120,000 BTU overhead radiant tube system.

Riggles also recommends synthetic lubricants during cold seasons. He says that synthetic lubricants are great for instant lubrication of all friction surfaces.


33. One for all, all for one

Several years ago at Aurora (Colo.) Public Schools, the bus maintenance department experienced some morale problems after a period of turnover at the supervisory level. In response to several retirements, the remaining staff reviewed the operation and made suggestions for improvements.

They recommended a team approach to reorganizing the shop, involving a group of facilitators being used in lieu of hiring new supervisors. The facilitators were charged with taking input from the staff into account when making decisions on hiring, communication, troubleshooting bus problems and other maintenance issues.

As a result, the entire staff became a cohesive unit that consistently provides peer support and feedback into maintenance processes. According to Augie Campbell, transportation director, the new system dramatically improved shop morale and the quality of work performed.

The success at Aurora can be translated to any department or segment of a transportation operation. The best ideas generally come from team environments, whether composed of administrators, supervisors, drivers or a mixture of each. Conducting brainstorming sessions at a meeting in which everyone is permitted to speak up is a good start. Here are some other tips to promote a cooperative atmosphere:


  • Create a team mission statement to problem solving.


  • Assign a mediator or facilitator to regulate meetings.


  • Consider all ideas.


  • Keep a close record of all meetings.


  • Encourage participation even if it requires asking.


    34. Inclusive sign makes everyone a winner

    We like to encourage everyone on staff in the transportation department at Special Education District of McHenry County. On all of our doors leading out of the transportation building, we have a sign that does just that.

    The sign reads: “Through these doors pass the best transportation personnel in the county.” The language in the sign includes all drivers, bus aides, mechanics, dispatchers, supervisors and secretaries.

    Each day, they see our commitment to their job safety, satisfaction and personal well-being.

    — Submitted by Denny McAuley, operations manager, Special Education District of McHenry County


    35. Convert old buses to cash

    Paying attention to detail and making small investments in bus upkeep can allow you to reap substantial returns on used buses when it’s time to replace them. Here are three easy steps to increasing your returns on the sale of used vehicles:

    1. When you paint over an area of the bus, such as the district or company name, sand it down first. Then repaint the area with school bus yellow instead of the standard black paint. Potential buyers then have only to letter the new bus rather than conduct the paintwork themselves.

    2. Sell the bus in “as-is, where-is” condition. Be honest with potential buyers about specific problems on vehicles, particularly shabbier buses with more than 200,000 miles. Often, buyers will reward your honesty about imperfect models by paying top dollar for the ones that have few or no imperfections.

    3. Pull all new or close-to-new tires from buses before they go to auction and keep them for your own fleet. Make sure to do this before a buyer sees the bus, so that they receive exactly what they bid on.


    36. Scavenger-style hunting

    Keeping driver-training sessions entertaining and informative is a continual challenge for transportation directors. The trick is to design special training exercises that keep drivers interested and involved, while giving them the opportunity to learn valuable information. One way of doing this is to implement a system in which employees compete against each other in an instructional game.

    A good example is a scavenger hunt that requires drivers to search for items on a selection of school buses. If you choose a group of buses with different chassis, body makes and features, drivers will familiarize themselves with multiple environments, instead of knowing only the one they drive. Set up the search so that drivers will have to distinguish between different types of bus components and equipment.

    Topics covered can include transit style buses versus conventional buses, differences between major chassis and engine manufacturers and differences between options on each type of electrical panel. Other bus characteristics observed can be roof hatches, side doors, suspensions and interior colors.

    The hunts are not only fun and educational for drivers, but they are also great team-building tools.

    Best of all, from the drivers’ standpoint at least, the winners are rewarded with a nice prize.


    37. Sorcery helps manage student behavior

    Although it’s impossible to wave a wand and magically stop any discipline problems on a school bus, driver Patty Zieske of Stahlke Bus Service in Delano, Minn., and her aide Dorothy Shepard have landed on the next best thing.

    Zieske implemented a program on her bus in which her aide, Shepard, reads to her special-needs passengers from the Harry Potter book series. Prior to the program, there were behavioral problems, but now the students listen attentively.

    The students suffer from a range of disabilities, and some prevent them from reading the books on their own. But Zieske and Shepard read the books, ask questions, make up games and hand out prizes that correspond with the book chapters.

    Zieske has been a driver for 18 years and was honored for the innovative program with a Friend of Education Award by the Delano Teachers’ Association.


    38. Safety with a side of learning

    As a former teacher and bus driver, Suzanne Oliver attests that an invisible wall stands between school district education and transportation departments. But the bus ride, she says, with its captive audience, offers a golden opportunity to combine the elements of safety and instruction. Out of this rationale, Oliver created the Traveling Minds program.

    Traveling Minds is an incentive-based program offered by both educators and transporters to students riding the school bus. Essentially, students get textbooks, flash cards, newspapers and other learning materials to read or study on the way to and from school. Over time, the students’ efforts earn them points, which can be traded in for rewards.

    The program, says Oliver, promotes learning to the students while breaking down the invisible wall between departments. It also encourages safety, as students engaged in onboard activities exhibit less disruptive behavior.


    39. Cut costs to a minimum

    With the rising cost of everything these days, transportation directors are hard pressed to find ways to cut costs without sacrificing service and safety, among other things.

    Mark A. Walsh, a certified management consultant and a partner in Transportation Advisory Services, has seen various challenges in his years in the transportation industry. With his experience, Walsh has accumulated cost-cutting tips to save districts money in this high-priced world.

    An obvious issue that transportation programs have is fleet maintenance. Walsh believes that computerizing your garage can help to track parts and labor costs, which is critical in benchmarking expenses. The key is identifying buses that are chewing up the most time and money. These might be the oldest buses in the fleet, but they might not.

    Also, remember that buses aren’t only used to take students to and from school. With field trips, the cost should be budgeted for the school or department requesting the trip. Districts also need to consider how they compensate drivers for trips in terms of driving times and waiting times.

    According to Walsh, an often-overlooked source of cost-cutting strategies is the people at the ground level of the operation. An open program should be created that encourages employees, especially drivers and mechanics, to submit cost-saving measures. It helps to offer a reward to those who come up with the best ideas.

    Battling against absenteeism is another effective method of keeping costs down. Perfect attendance programs with monetary rewards can help to minimize absenteeism. In addition, drivers need to be constantly reminded that their attendance is greatly appreciated. Let them know.

    If spending on supplies is getting out of hand, try bulk purchasing. Check to see if the district can participate in a purchasing bid for supplies such as parts, tires and fuel.

    Finally, use the marketplace to bid on proposals for transportation requirements. Make sure to conduct the bids early enough in the school year to maximize competition.


    40. Choose the right software provider

    When you’re considering new fleet maintenance software, you should follow a well-defined process that includes the following steps supplied by Chevin Fleet Solutions.


  • Document your current and desired processes as well as goals and objectives.


  • Compare your desired functionality to the capabilities delivered by the proposed system. Fleet management systems should be easy to learn and operate and should be adaptable to your organizational processes.


  • Carefully review the supplier’s credentials. Also take into account their attitude and approach.


  • Make sure the supplier offers comprehensive support.


    41. Security is the key

    Tired of keeping up with all those keys used for activity trips? Are you leaving keys onboard your buses for the sake of convenience? Have you considered the possibility of vandals boarding the buses and either damaging or stealing them?

    Here are a few alternatives that may save you time, grief and money. Driver-trainer Shelly Shields recommends having all ignition keys keyed the same. There are little or no hassles with one key that fits all, she says.

    It’s also a good idea to number the keys on one side for tracking purposes and label them with “Do Not Duplicate” instructions on the other. John Farr, school transportation consultant, suggests keying alike all secondary locks such as the camera boxes, door keys and ignition interlocks as well. He adds that a motorized gate with a keypad and access codes can provide extra security while reducing the need for additional keys or gate openers.

    Unique access codes can identify parties entering or exiting the bus yard. Magnetized key boxes are also good for storing or hiding spare keys.


    42. Battle the bus driver shortage

    Typically, the driver shortage is worst when the economy is flourishing and unemployment is low. But school transportation managers need to constantly focus on trying to find good hires, whether they’re substitutes or full-time drivers.

    The following driver recruitment strategies have been successfully used by school districts and contractors across the country.

    Finder’s fees. Let’s face it, word of mouth is one of the most effective ways to recruit school bus drivers. Plus, it has the added benefit that the “recruiter” will likely be someone already working as a driver and thus would have strong sense of whether the prospect can do the job.

    To sweeten the pot, many school districts and contractors offer a referral bonus. If the new employee stays at least, say, three months, the referring employee receives a bonus. This technique works for many different businesses, but is especially effective in school transportation.

    School bus billboards. Parking a school bus at a shopping mall with a large banner that says “Bus Drivers Needed” is an effective way of catching the eye of the public. Michael Dallessandro, transportation director at Lake Shore (N.Y.) Central School District, says he’s received telephone inquiries only a few hours after the bus is put on display. “Over a three-week period, I have received an average of 18 applications,” he says. “Out of those 18 applicants, finding six quality employees is not that much of a stretch.”

    Canvassing the community. Your best hires will come from the local area, so you might as well canvas the community. To accomplish this, consider placing fliers in laundromats, grocery stores, restaurants, employment offices and other high-traffic outlets. Offer your speaking services at civic organizations like Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis. These groups are often starved for good speakers. An interesting talk about the overall safety record of school buses and the local pupil transportation program would be well received.

    Don’t forget the obvious. Classified advertising in your local newspaper is a good investment. Generally, the cost of these ads are relatively small and thus can be run with good frequency. You should also consider advertising in church bulletins, social service agency newsletters and other community-based publications.


    43. Hawk it on eBay

    The Internet has been an invaluable resource to operators for information and communication purposes for some time now, but it’s increasingly useful as a marketplace. Dozens of school bus operators, public and private, have flocked to Websites such as and to buy and sell used school buses and other surplus equipment. Best of all, demand for vehicles and equipment is not just driven by those who need the items for their own school districts, but also by enthusiasts and collectors shopping for memorabilia.


    44. No child left on the bus

    During the past four years, the State of Tennessee has had several incidents in which children were left on a school bus or van. Several children died in those incidents. The governor ordered the State Day Care Licensing Department to come up with a plan of action to reduce the possibility of the incidents recurring.

    Subsequently, the state passed a law with specific requirements for school transportation operations. When drivers arrive at the site, either after the morning pick-up of all the children or after the evening delivery and return to the bus parking lot, the bus has to be checked by a reconciler, a staff member that did not ride the route. The driver and the bus assistant, if present, must check the bus again before the bus is parked.

    The weekly bus route roster must also be checked as each child gets on or off the bus — morning and afternoon. That roster has to be signed by all staff participating in the bus check to verify that all children have been removed.

    Staff has to undergo training up to two times per year to reinforce the procedure. Occasionally, a state day care office staff member and I will monitor drivers on their routes to ensure the new law is observed.

    — Submitted by Willie White, transportation supervisor at Avondale (Tenn.) Head Start


    45. Clean, maintain safety restraints

    Car seats and seat belts get dirty fast. In addition to the health hazards this can pose, it can hinder the equipment from working properly. Here’s a list of steps to take in making sure safety restraints, as well as the seats they rest on, are properly maintained.


  • Car seats should be removed from the bus seat on a regular basis so the seat area beneath can be cleaned.


  • Clean car seats with a commercial cleaner designed for such purposes. A mild disinfectant or even just an old-fashioned combination of soap and water can also be effective.


  • Be careful about using cleaning solutions with strong fragrances. Some children may be highly allergic.


  • Seat belts should be regularly wiped clean. The female end of the latching mechanism tends to gather dirt and food particles and can become “gummed up” enough to not work right.


  • All safety restraints should be regularly inspected for damage and wear. A damaged car seat or any other type of restraint should be replaced. (The damaged restraint must be destroyed so it’s not used again by mistake.)


  • Though safety seats were previously discarded after any type of accident, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found earlier this year that the seats can be reused after minor crashes. NHTSA defines a minor crash as one in which no visual damage was done to the seat, the vehicle was able to drive away, the door nearest the seat was undamaged, there were no occupant injuries and any air bags on board did not deploy.

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

    Click here for Great Ways 46 through 60

  • Related Topics: behavior management, child safety restraint systems, cutting costs, driver shortage, driver training, morale, seating

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