Student Safety Comes First

Kelly Roher, Assistant Editor
Posted on June 1, 2007
Key transportation staff members at Kanawha County Schools include (from left, standing) Orville Fields (service tech crew leader), Linda Ball, Eddie Metten, Willie Schofield, Jackie Kay (drivers) and George Beckett (transportation director). Kneeling are Clayton Means and Mark Byrd (service technicians).
Key transportation staff members at Kanawha County Schools include (from left, standing) Orville Fields (service tech crew leader), Linda Ball, Eddie Metten, Willie Schofield, Jackie Kay (drivers) and George Beckett (transportation director). Kneeling are Clayton Means and Mark Byrd (service technicians).

Located in the metropolitan area of Charleston, W.Va., Kanawha County Schools advocates providing students with a first-rate education that will prepare them for the future.

The passion and enthusiasm with which this district's transportation director, George Beckett, speaks about its bus fleet is a shining example of how he and the rest of the transportation department staff are instrumental in transporting the students to school each day, thus helping them achieve their academic goals.

A veteran transportation director
Beckett has worked for Kanawha County Schools for 37 years, including 31 as its transportation director. He taught math at one of the county's schools, became a research and evaluation analyst, and segued into becoming a research and evaluation coordinator before becoming transportation director in the mid-1970s.

As one would expect, Beckett's lengthy career with Kanawha County Schools has endowed him with a wealth of knowledge. According to Beckett, this district is "one of the largest in West Virginia," and consequently, its school bus fleet is constantly evolving. Blue Bird buses with International chassis, IC, and Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner C2 buses (among others) comprise this fleet. However, according to both Beckett and the district's transportation supervisor of school bus maintenance, David Pauley, the Thomas Built C2 buses are the primary models currently used by the district. It has been running these buses for three years. Beckett explains, "We've found these buses to be easier to handle than some of the other models, and we have found them to be very reliable."

High standards in place
While acknowledging that his bus fleet has changed over the years, Beckett notes that it has always done well on state inspections, and it continues to do so today. "We take pride in the fact that we have an excellent state inspection record," he says. Beckett also emphasizes that one of the main reasons his fleet has done so well on state inspections is his dedicated staff. "I can't say enough about our employees," says Beckett. "In fact, I think they're one of the biggest strengths of our bus operation. We have very well-trained drivers and a great maintenance staff."

Technicians must complete an extensive amount of training as well. Pauley explains that technicians must have "at least 18 hours of school bus maintenance training per year —that's required by the state." All technicians must also have at least one year of certifiable experience in diesel mechanics, air brake certification and a West Virginia State Inspector's License. In addition, while it is not required that the technicians have ASE certification, Pauley says that technicians get reimbursed for the cost of the training program if they want to attend it. The reason for requiring the aforementioned training programs and certifications is simple — student safety is of the utmost importance to the district's transportation staff.

PM program has 3 levels
To that end, the district has a very detailed preventive maintenance program. Beckett says that it basically has three levels of inspection, including a rigorous pre-trip inspection performed by the drivers.

Additionally, each bus is brought in every 20 days to one of the district's five maintenance facilities, where technicians look them over to see if there are any problems that the drivers may not have noticed. Finally, the condition of each bus is evaluated quarterly by certified state bus inspectors.

Beckett believes that the buses are "well maintained" due to the high quality of their maintenance equipment and their operating systems. Pauley echoes this sentiment. He maintains that the greatest strength of their program is that each bus is inspected every 20 days. "A good preventive maintenance program leads to a good fleet," he says. "It's important to take care of problems before they arise. We still have mechanical problems from time to time, but our program is much better than it used to be."

Service facilities are top notch
It is also important for the buses to be serviced in well-equipped and well-organized facilities. Pauley says that each of the district's five maintenance facilities has a crew leader who is responsible for overseeing the tasks that the techs perform, and for making certain that all of the buses operate properly. Further, he says that the facilities have two to four bays and they contain tools and supplies for the techs. One of the facilities is used as an inventory control center.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Pauley and his staff use Fleet Pro maintenance software to keep track of their supplies and maintenance records. It is yet another method they use to keep their facilities running smoothly. They have also standardized each facility — each one contains a group of specific buses. For instance, one garage works on Thomas Built C2 buses, while another works on IC buses. This makes it easier for the techs to assess mechanical problems. Pauley explains, "If a technician notices a glitch in one of the C2 buses, he can look at the other C2 buses in the garage and see if they have the same problem. It saves time because this way, the techs don’t have to look through the entire fleet." It helps cut maintenance costs as well.

Facing, solving challenges
In spite of their cost-cutting efforts, Pauley and his staff face challenges. He says they are engendered, in large part, by unfunded federal mandates. The government requires new school buses to run on ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD), and it continues to lower emission standards. These mandates increase the amount of money necessary to maintain the buses (ULSD costs more than conventional diesel), and the cost of buses.

These are not the only challenges facing this fleet's employees. Beckett also has experienced a shortage of substitute bus drivers in recent years. In addition to completing a behind-the-wheel training program and obtaining their CDL, drivers must go through DMV checks. "The exams they have to pass are more difficult than they were in the past," Beckett says. This, coupled with all of the programs they must attend and checks they must endure, makes it difficult to find individuals who are truly well qualified to be bus drivers, he says.

Moreover, Beckett says his staff has experienced a higher turnover over the past three years. He speculates that this may be because many staff members are baby boomers and are therefore retiring. While he recognizes that this is unavoidable ("I'm one of those baby boomers," he laughs), Beckett says that the rigorous driver selection process makes it difficult to find replacements.

Finally, Beckett has had some problems with troublesome student behavior on buses. To remedy this, the district is developing a student behavior management program. It has also installed a video monitoring system in each of the fleet's buses. The cameras are located in the front of the buses. Beckett says they allow the drivers to see "what's transpiring behind their backs" so that they can curb problematic behavior when necessary.

Another way that the district is combating this issue is by providing the drivers with official uniforms. Beckett and his colleagues feel that the uniforms will give the drivers a stronger sense of authority and "help assist in student control" because the students will be inclined to treat the drivers more respectfully.

Morale boosters
For each of the struggles that the district's fleet employees face, Beckett provides them with motivation to persevere. He has worked tirelessly to keep his buses in top condition and has specified that they should contain the best equipment available. All of the fleet's special-needs buses have air conditioning, and every bus has tinted windows and white roofs. These features help keep the buses cool during hot weather. The buses also have heated mirrors to melt ice during cold weather, and Beckett has had an automatic key system installed in many of the buses. This system aids drivers during their pre-trip inspections by automatically turning on the bus' signals. This way, the driver can examine each one while walking around the outside of the bus without having to turn all of them on manually.

To encourage safe driving and boost morale, the department offers a $100 stipend to drivers who maintain a good driving record each year. During the year, the drivers must drive at least 15,000 miles and miss no more than five days of work. Their roadeos, complete with barbecues, boost morale as well. Beckett says that the roadeos "kill two birds with one stone — they're a way for the drivers to receive training and have fun at the same time."

This district's bus fleet is also a member of the National Safety Council (NSC) and the West Virginia Association of Pupil Transportation (WVAPT). Over the years, the NSC has awarded safety pins to Kanawha County school bus drivers with impressive driving records.

As a WVAPT member, Beckett and his fellow transportation supervisors organize events geared toward teaching children about bus safety. He says that from time to time they have "safety poster contests" and the students who create the most original posters are awarded prizes.

A bright future
Beckett is optimistic about the future of Kanawha County Schools. Three of the schools are transitioning to year-round curriculums, and his buses have started transporting students to magnet schools within the district. He also has a GPS tracking system pilot program in the works. So far, he has had tracking systems installed in 15 of his buses and is testing their effectiveness. Beckett says that the terrain in the area makes it difficult to determine how effective the systems will be (the buses drive through mountains, valleys and near creeks). However, he is determined to come up with a solution to this dilemma saying, "With all the concern about possible terrorist attacks, and given what happened at Virginia Tech, we want to implement a system that will help us keep track of our students more efficiently while they're riding our buses."
Fleet Facts
Buses: 190
Students transported daily: 20,000
Total students in district: 28,000
Districts served: 1
Schools served: 70
Total number of employees: 4,000
Area of service: 913 square miles
Average driver wages: $25,000/year

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