8 Great Fleets in 2008

Posted on January 1, 2008
In addition to its 800 school buses, Birnie Bus Service operates about two dozen motorcoaches.
In addition to its 800 school buses, Birnie Bus Service operates about two dozen motorcoaches.

Family vision continues as bus company grows

Birnie Bus Service, Rome, N.Y.

It’s already been a long road for Tim Birnie, owner of Birnie Bus Service Inc. in Rome, N.Y., but even though he owns the company, he’s still driving.

“I wouldn’t ask my employees to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” says Birnie, who is also known to still wash a bus or two during peak times. Washing buses is something Birnie has a lot of experience with, too, since that’s what he was doing on weekends as a kid when his father owned the company.

The younger Birnie later worked for several years as a sixth-grade teacher in Rome before returning to Birnie Bus to take the reins. “My heart was always with the buses,” he says.

These days there are quite a lot of buses. Birnie Bus now serves 20 school districts with 800 school buses. In SCHOOL BUS FLEET’s 2007 Top 50 Contractors list, Birnie Bus was ranked No. 18.

The bulk of the busing is for Rome City School District, with over 300 buses serving 12 schools.

The company’s main offices are based out of a little piece of American history: the Griffis Air Force Base, originally built in 1941 and was converted into a corporate business and technology mall in 1995. (In addition to its military functions, Griffis was also home to Woodstock ’99.)

Birnie Bus’ headquarters and hard-working president aren’t its only unique aspects, though. The company is going above and beyond the call of environmental duty by participating in the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s hybrid-electric school bus demonstration project. Birnie Bus is scheduled to get a demo bus, manufactured by IC Corporation and Enova Systems, sometime in 2008. The project seeks to cut down on bus emissions, as well as to offset the rising cost of fuel for school bus operators nationwide.

In addition to its admirable efforts to promote a healthy environment for the cities it services and the planet as a whole, Birnie Bus also does its best to encourage a safe and pleasant busing experience for the thousands of students it transports every day by giving awards and certificates to the route with the lowest number of disciplinary write-ups.

The company has also held safety poster and coloring contests for students in kindergarten through sixth grade to encourage school bus safety awareness.

Of course, in Birnie Bus’ five-decade history, there have been plenty of obstacles, not the least of which is the winter weather of Birnie’s service area.

“We operate in the northeast part of the U.S., so one of our biggest issues is the weather. I can tell you one thing, it’s a lot easier to own a bus company in south Florida,” Birnie joked.

But despite school closures and snowy roads, the company has managed to expand steadily throughout its history, from the time when Birnie’s father, Martin, purchased a handful of buses in the early 1950s and began serving local schools. Birnie Bus has now expanded to over a dozen terminals throughout New York state while continuing to serve Rome City School District, as it has nearly from the start. Birnie Bus also operates about two dozen motorcoaches, which are based in Rome at the corporate headquarters and transport passengers to locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The company’s success is no mystery to Birnie. “The difference between us and a lot of companies is that we’re a family-owned business,” he says. “Not that the larger companies don’t do a good job, but this is our life. We live it, breathe it and eat it.”


Fleet Facts
School buses: 800
Districts served: 20
Transportation staff: 1,000
Area of service: Central and upstate New York

The transportation department at Goddard Public Schools has grown in step with district enrollment, which has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.

Department keeps school bus discipline in check

Goddard Public Schools, Goddard, Kan.

An unruly bus is bound to be an unsafe bus. Disorderly behavior among students can lead to injuries and distract the driver. That’s why having a strong disciplinary system in place is crucial in pupil transportation.

At Goddard Public Schools in southern Kansas, the transportation department takes this duty head on. Bus discipline is handled by the department itself rather than by the students’ schools.

When drivers have problems with pupils on their bus, they fill out a write-up form. The transportation department employs a full-time discipline coordinator, who takes the drivers’ write-ups and then works with the parents and children to correct the problem.

“The system works great,” says Transportation Director Jack Gennette, “It’s consistent across the board — from high school down to kindergarten — and parents understand it.”

While the district doesn’t see many major disciplinary breaches, such as fights breaking out or weapons being brought on the bus, Gennette says, “that doesn’t mean we don’t get a lot of write-ups.” But most involve lesser infractions, like standing up or changing seats. “We have good kids in the Goddard area,” Gennette says.

Also helping to maintain order, the department hires drivers strictly for activity trips. This keeps regular route drivers on their routes and avoids subbing. “Most of the time when you have problems on routes, it’s with substitutes,” Gennette says. “We want to keep route drivers doing what they’re supposed to be doing, because the most important thing we do is getting students to and from school safely.”

Goddard is a small town just outside of Wichita, which is the largest city in the state and is where most of the students in Goddard Public Schools live. The district is split between urban and rural areas, covering about 65 square miles.

A key challenge for the transportation department is keeping up with the district’s growth. Gennette says that when he came to the district in 1998, there were about 2,800 students enrolled in the district. Now there are about 4,900, about 4,000 of which ride school buses daily.

The department has had to constantly recruit more drivers and buy more buses to accommodate the increase. Gennette says that support from district administration is critical.

“They’re good about getting us new equipment,” Gennette says. “We’re not an unwanted stepchild. They treat us as part of the group — everyone from the top down.”

The district’s fleet consists mainly of 84-passenger Blue Bird transit-style buses. At press time, there were 65 buses total in the fleet, but Gennette said that they would soon be acquiring more.

The department, which comprises 73 staff members, strives to make itself an enjoyable place to work. This has helped in achieving a strong driver attendance rate. Still, attendance expectations are made perfectly clear. “We’re pretty blunt about it — we expect them to come to work every day,” Gennette says.

Employees’ efforts are recognized each year through an awards program, which includes honors for safe driving and for years-of-service.

But the most interesting award, perhaps, is the “Golden Tire Buddy.” Part of the department’s pre-trip inspection routine is checking tire pressure with a tire knocker, also known by the name Tire Buddy. At the end of the school year, one of these tools is painted gold and presented to a driver for outstanding pre-trip performance.

“It’s always tough to pick one person, because there are a lot doing good pre-trips,” Gennette says.


Fleet Facts
School buses: 65
Students transported daily: 4,000
Schools served: 11
Transportation staff: 73
Area of service: 65 sq. miles
Montana school bus drivers are required to complete 10 hours of training annually; Steve Klippenes, transportation director, says drivers for Lewistown Public Schools average 25 or 30 hours each year.

Transportation program shares community spirit

Lewistown Public Schools, Lewistwon, Mont.

At press time, Lewistown, Mont., had just experienced its first serious winter storm of the year, with 16 inches of snow falling overnight. Located in a rural area of central Montana surrounded by mountain ranges, Lewistown was the site of a gold rush in the 1880s. Today, instead of prospectors, the town draws school bus drivers from hundreds of miles away each fall for a training event hosted by the transportation department at Lewistown Public Schools.

The state requires 10 hours per year of in-service training for Montana school bus drivers, explains Steve Klippenes, the transportation director at Lewistown Public Schools for 22 years. In order to help other districts meet this requirement, Lewistown developed the annual School Bus Drivers Symposium — an all-day event featuring speakers, hands-on workshops and drills.

Klippenes’ assistant, Kathleen Schaeffer, organizes the training day each year and models it after the annual conference held by the Montana Association for Pupil Transportation, where she often finds speakers for the Lewistown symposium. Maxine Mougeot, transportation director at the state Office of Public Instruction, also connects the district with instructors for the event. Having attended the symposium, she has seen Lewistown’s staff in action. “You see nothing but smiles,” she says. “These are kind, considerate and very pleasant people.”

Schaeffer reports that about 125 drivers attended the training day this year, and she expects the number to increase each year. Topics covered over the past two years at the symposium include workshops on bullying, public health, workplace safety and risk management, a demonstration on mirror adjustment and bus evacuation drills. Even customer service and other business concepts — “anything we can transfer to being better bus drivers,” says Schaeffer — can be valuable.

Lewistown also sends its drivers to the state association’s annual convention and workshops. “The school district picks up the tab for anyone that wants to go and we encourage them all to go,” says Klippenes. “We average 12 to 14 drivers attending.”

Drivers aren’t the only ones who undergo regular school bus training. A group of volunteers from the transportation department takes buses to the district’s elementary schools every year to practice bus evacuations and teach safe riding habits to the students, which helps improve behavior, says Klippenes. “Although, I have to say, being from rural Montana, our kids are really good,” he adds. “But they all have their moments.”

The district has 14 yellow school buses and five MCI motorcoaches for activities, says Klippenes. “A number of our activity trips are over 200 miles one way, so we use MCI coaches for transporting our athletic teams,” he explains. The buses — all equipped with heated steps, strobes, interior video camera surveillance systems, tinted windows and GPS — are replaced about every eight years. “We contract with Head Start to do one route, and that bus is usually a little older because we rotate our buses into that position,” Klippenes says.

In addition to the regional training symposium, Klippenes’ department collaborates with nearby school districts in other ways. Some districts only provide transportation for their elementary school children, so Lewistown transports their high school students, Klippenes explains. Sharing resources in this way is a common practice in Lewistown. Klippenes conveys his community’s spirit of unity when he says that local church ministers often serve as substitute bus drivers, and the annual staff Christmas and end-of-the-year parties are typically held at his home, fostering relationships among drivers that feel like family.


Fleet Facts
School buses: 14
Students transported daily: 425
Schools served: 5
Transportation staff: 22
Area of service: 25 sq. miles

Ontario School District has a history of coming up with innovative practices to help make transportation safer and more efficient.

Innovative ideas help district operation thrive

Ontario School District, Ontario, Ore. If you ever have trouble finding your bus in Ontario School District, look for the porcupine. Or the frog. Or the ladyfish.

A few years ago, the district’s transportation department began assigning buses with animal symbols as well as numbers, helping younger students in particular to get on the right bus.

Good ideas seem to abound in Ontario, which sits on the eastern edge of Oregon, not far from Boise, Idaho. To connect with the community and promote safety, the transportation department regularly has an exhibit at the county fair. Kids get pencils and stickers, watch a safety video and take a tour of a bus. The experience can also be beneficial for parents.

“A lot of times parents haven’t had an opportunity to get on the bus,” says Duke Clinton, the district’s director of operations. “Maybe their last time was in high school.”

Clinton extends much of the credit for innovative practices that are in place to department manager Don Dalton. And the dedication of staff members throughout the transportation department is one its strengths, he says. At the end of each school year, staff members vote for a “Transportation Employee of the Year,” who is presented a plaque.

Another strength is that the district provides ample support — including funding — for the transportation department, which is a key component of its success. “They allow the department to have the type of fleet and staff that we have,” Clinton says.

The district buys at least two new buses every year, keeping the fleet of 32 relatively young. The buses are mostly Type Ds, plus a handful of Type As.

Maintaining a top fleet is not without its challenges, of course. The department recently experienced some difficulty related to the EPA’s 2007 emissions standards. Two new buses were recalled right after they were delivered.

“I think [the standards are] the right step, but it’s always the beta phase that has challenges,” Clinton says.

Beyond allotting funds for new equipment, the district is able to provide resources through its other departments. An example of this came about when the buses were due for a new video surveillance system.

The existing system consisted of cameras mounted in protective casing at the front of the bus, and it was “quickly reaching the end of its useful life,” Clinton says. Additionally, the task of copying video to a VHS tape after routes, a duty fulfilled by the district’s bus monitor, was very time consuming. Pinpointing specific footage was even more trying.

After considerable research, the district’s technology department used off-the-shelf hardware components to build a new surveillance system that met transportation’s specifications, which included improving video and sound quality, having a lifecycle of at least 10 years, being cost effective and saving time in searching for specific footage. Most interesting, perhaps, was that transportation wanted a wireless system that would download video from buses automatically.

To meet this cutting-edge request, the bus parking lot was equipped with a server and wireless access points that communicate with individual buses when they come into range at the end of their routes. Video from the bus is then downloaded through the access point to the server. To allow for easier retrieval, the video is saved in five-minute increments, and drivers note the approximate time of any onboard incidents.

The district has installed the video units in 10 of its route buses, and the rest will be installed soon. Clinton describes the project as “a real feather in our cap here. I don’t think anyone out there has the same thing.”


Fleet Facts
School buses: 32
Students transported daily: 1,600
Schools served: 8
Transportation staff: 26
Area of service: 120 sq. miles
Providing additional training for his staff is a high priority for Pike County Schools Maintenance and Transportation Supervisor Mike Johnson. From left: Johnson; Tony Jones, mechanic; Richard Berry, mechanic; and Jeff Allen, mechanic.

Improvement, growth are keys to success

Pike County Schools, Troy, Ala.

Since becoming maintenance and transportation supervisor three years ago, Mike Johnson, (who started as a maintenance worker in 1998 and was promoted to maintenance department supervisor in 2002) has worked tirelessly to upgrade all aspects of the Pike County Schools transportation department.

“When I came into this district, everything was from the stone age,” Johnson reveals. “So we’re taking steps to modernize the shop and increase efficiency.”

With the support of Superintendent Dr. Mark Bazzell, Johnson has renovated the parts room, the mechanics’ work area and automated their parts inventory system.

Moreover, as of August 2007, the district’s 57 buses run on biodiesel, which excites Johnson for a few reasons. In addition to its positive environmental impact, the fuel has enhanced his fleet’s performance. “Once we put the first batch in and then changed the filters, the mechanics and drivers noticed that the buses were running better,” he says.

Petroleum Energy Products Company, a Division of Midstream Fuel Service LLC, provides the fuel and monitors the district’s fuel tanks; this prevents them from running out — previously a chronic problem.

Having a well-maintained fleet is a priority for Johnson, and the district’s 10-year fleet replacement program helps him accomplish this goal. He also recently authorized specs to improve conditions for his drivers, including air-ride suspension, air-ride seats and air doors. An automatic pre-trip inspection system is built into the district’s 2008 Thomas Built models and they are equipped with Child Check-Mate Systems’ intrusion alert/child-check alarm as well — Johnson plans to update his ’05 and ’07 models with the same equipment.

Johnson believes that riding a school bus is a privilege and students must be considerate of the drivers; for these reasons, he has implemented a policy which stipulates that students who are caught fighting on the bus or disrupting the driver are to be suspended from riding it for six weeks.

He has enforced another policy that requires parents to pay a minimum of $50 if their child purposely damages a bus seat. Furthermore, if the drivers witness vandalism but fail to report it, a minimum of $50 is deducted from their paychecks. “This reinforces the idea that drivers should keep tabs on their students and make sure that the buses are kept in good condition,” Johnson reasons.

The staff (which consists of two utility workers, four maintenance workers, two technology specialists, a secretary and the drivers) get together with Johnson periodically for barbeques. He feels it is important to hold events like this to demonstrate his appreciation for their hard work.

It is this belief that fuels Johnson’s future goals for the department. By February, he hopes to have invested in a unified T-shirt for his drivers, which he believes will enhance their teambuilding efforts. He also hopes to create award programs to recognize staff members who have excelled in their positions.

Providing additional training for his mechanics (and everyone on the staff), and investing in routing software are also among Johnson’s top priorities.

“There are little things that we want to do to give the shop a ‘face lift,’” he adds. This includes purchasing new lights, better tools and more effective test equipment for the buses.

“Compared to a few years ago, we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot to be done,” says Johnson. “Our goal is to look at things each day and get as much done as possible that will better the shop, improve training and boost morale.”


Fleet Facts
School buses: 57
Students transported daily: 1,663
Schools served: 6
Daily mileage: 1,700
Area of service: 670 sq. miles

Portage Public Schools’ transportation department employees have over 300 years of combined safe driving records.

Dynamic safety programs define fleet's mission

Portage Public Schools, Portage, Mich.

Louk Markham, transportation manager for Portage Public Schools, characterizes Portage, Mich., as “a nice, quiet, suburban community,” with a population of about 50,000. Markham came to Michigan from California, where he started his career as a driver in 1974 before becoming an assistant transportation manager. He’s held his current position since 1999, is a past president of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation (MAPT), and loves experiencing the area’s four seasons.

When he started at Portage, Markham says it was not uncommon to have employees in his department who had worked there 30 years. Despite seeing the boomers begin to retire, he still has some 20- and 30-year employees on staff. “People that come to work at Portage Public Schools tend to stay here because it’s a good employer and it pays well,” he says. “Here, they really value transportation because the community values it, so the administration supports it.”

That value is reflected in a rigorous maintenance program. “We’re hoping for the seventh straight year of perfect inspections by Michigan State Police,” says Markham. The bus fleet, comprising about two-thirds conventional buses and one-third rear-engine transits, is on a 10-year replacement schedule. The district takes part in an aggregate bus bid managed by the Michigan School Business Officials and MAPT. “School districts combine their specifications and bid on a statewide basis to purchase through this bid,” Markham explains. “It’s voluntary, but we found that it saves us money and time in procuring buses.”

Another of Markham’s initiatives when he started at Portage was to create an employee safety committee within the transportation department. The committee holds meetings once a month to discuss current safety topics and laws, has held a fundraiser to purchase a Buster the School Bus robot for teaching safety in elementary schools, and developed a program in which high school students are trained to help monitor behavior on afternoon elementary school bus routes.

The committee is also working closely with the school district in the planning of a new transportation facility, using a transportation safety and security document authored by the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute as a reference. Markham says the transportation department will move into the new facility just before the start of the 2009-10 school year.

In addition, the committee has been integral in disaster and crisis management planning. In order to prepare for such situations and to fine-tune their plans, the committee organizes disaster scenario practice sessions. “We break people into groups and say, ‘Here’s your disaster at our department — solve it,’” Markham explains. “And then we go back and say, ‘Is this what was in the plan? Is this what you were supposed to do? Did we learn that maybe we need to change our procedures after you guys ran this scenario?’”

Safety training doesn’t end there. Markham invites the local fire department to train drivers on fire extinguisher use, as well as railroad officials, who have educated drivers about Operation Lifesaver. All school bus drivers at Portage also go through an all-day defensive driving program. Drivers practice evasive maneuvers, emergency braking and off-road recovery. “The highlight of the program is that the drivers actually practice driving on a skid pad, skidding a school bus sideways and then regaining control of the bus,” says Markham. “Participating in the program is not required by the state, but each one of our drivers will go through it in their first year or two of driving.”


Fleet Facts
School buses: 60
Students transported daily: 5,100
Schools served: 13
Transportation staff: 70
Area of service: 45 sq. miles
Safety, integrity and dependability are core values for Richland School District Two’s drivers. From left: James Williams, S.C.’s 2007 School Bus Roadeo winner; Robert McElroy, S.C.’s 2007 School Bus Driver Hero of the Year; and Shellie Ryant, S.C.’s 2007 School Bus Driver of the Year.

Driver dedication, administrative support thrive

Richland School District Two, Columbia, S.C.

According to Wendell Shelton, Richland School District Two’s transportation manager for the last five years, Columbia, S.C., is full of compassionate individuals.

This benevolent spirit can be found within the district’s transportation staff. In 2007, one of its drivers won South Carolina’s School Bus Driver Hero of the Year award (the recipient saved a student who was choking on a piece of candy by performing the Heimlich maneuver). “It’s drivers like this that enable our operation to function,” says Shelton. “Without a strong team of dedicated drivers, no transportation department will be successful.”

Teamwork is also an integral part of the department’s values. Shelton says the drivers often accommodate extra passengers to help one another and inform each other of traffic problems while en route to schools.

Since he began working at Richland Two, the department has organized holiday luncheons and activities, a Bus Driver Appreciation Week and potlucks — Shelton believes these events have been instrumental in establishing and enhancing driver camaraderie.

To further boost morale, the department issues each driver a T-shirt with the district’s name embroidered on it; it also sponsors two incentive bonuses for excellent driver performance and attendance. Perfect attendance and length of service is recognized with lapel pins.

Moreover, Shelton has worked closely with the school board and the district’s superintendent to implement pay increases. Five years ago, drivers made $9 an hour; today, they start out making nearly $12 an hour. Shelton is now also able to offer drivers 30-hour-per-week employment. After they complete their routes, the drivers work at the district’s schools to fulfill the remainder of their 30 hours. “This allows them to qualify for benefits and makes driving a school bus a viable option for more people,” Shelton says.

Another innovation the department has initiated is rewarding elementary school students for good behavior while on board school buses. One particular school (Killian Elementary) has created what Shelton calls “Caught Doing Good” slips. The school provides drivers with the slips, and when they want to recognize students’ good behavior, they write their names on the slips and turn them in to their school administrator. The school then enters the students in a drawing, where they have an opportunity to win prizes.

Shelton feels that this effort will benefit the department and district in the long run because it will teach students that their behavior on board a school bus and in a classroom should mirror one another. It also shows students that their good behavior is appreciated.

Because the state owns 98 of the buses in Richland Two’s fleet (the district owns 17 activity buses), the district has invested in customized software that enables it to automate the state report. The company, U.S. Computing, has also created specialized software to automate the district’s accounting, payroll, bus routes, vehicle locations and field trip requests. Another software system tracks every incident of student behavior reported to the district’s schools, and each school can see how many times a particular student has been guilty of an infraction on a school bus.

Investing in these software programs has substantially increased the department’s efficiency, benefitting employees. “Anytime you can get a supervisor away from the paperwork and closer to his or her staff, you’ve accomplished something significant,” Shelton emphasizes. “The employees are the most important part of an operation, so you have to make certain that you’re available to address their needs.”


Fleet Facts
School buses: 98
Daily bus rides for students: 17,500
Schools served: 27
Transportation staff: 187
Area of service: 525 sq. miles

These 30 employees represent over 400 years of dedicated service to Star and Strand Transportation Inc.

A little loyalty goes a long way for bus company

Star and Strand Transportation, Troy, N.Y.

Some companies and employees are in their business for the money, and some are in it for love. In many cases, it’s probably a combination of the two, but if you talk to Scott Thorner, one of Star and Strand Transportation Inc.’s two transportation managers, you’ll get the feeling that for them, it’s all love.

Family-owned Star and Strand first opened its doors over 40 years ago and now serves school districts in and around Troy, N.Y., transporting 1,100 students to and from over 100 schools each day. The difference between Star and Strand and an average bus company? Star and Strand exclusively transports special-needs students.

This means a very different experience for the company. “We don’t have any corner pickups,” Thorner says. “Every pickup is door to door. And there are so many individual needs. We do a lot of one-on-one transportation, since some students can’t do a whole day, so we’ll have to pick up one student at 10, another at 10:30.”

With such complicated routes and schedules, it’s easy to imagine that Star and Strand’s employees would get frustrated, but Thorner says that’s not the case. “When people get here, the first thing Jay [Schneider, co-owner] tells them is: ‘This is your last stop.’”

More often than not, he’s right: Of Star and Strand’s 80 drivers, 35 have been there for more than five years, including 10 who have been there for over a decade, despite the fact that there are seven other private contractors in the area. And, Thorner says, they’ve even hired 22 drivers over the last five years who have left area contractors to join the team at Star and Strand.

Thorner says that the ownership is largely responsible for the company’s impressive degree of employee satisfaction. “I always tell people, really, if you can’t work for Jay, then you can’t work anywhere.” With the motto “A happy driver is a safe driver,” Schneider and his co-owner, sister Kris McLoughlin, have done all they can to make their employees happy, from providing financial assistance to rides to work.

Good work environment aside, it’s no picnic keeping track of the constantly shifting schedules and routes, as students’ needs change or new passengers are introduced to routes. “We get changes like you wouldn’t believe,” Thorner says.

How does this relatively small company handle the stress? Personal service on this scale requires a unique person, and in Star and Strand’s case, it’s Warren Scheilding, Thorner’s co-transportation manager. “He’s a human computer,” Thorner says. “We don’t need maps with Warren around.”

Scheilding, a former cab dispatcher who’s been with the company for over three decades, can direct drivers from nearly anywhere in Star and Strand’s service area to anywhere they need to be, whether it’s a school or a new pickup house. Thorner says that while a map could give directions about where to turn, Scheilding’s memory is so good that he can even tell drivers what landmarks are on each corner, making their jobs that much easier.

Still, do happy drivers always drive safely? They do if they’re Mechelle LaMarche, a Star and Strand driver who came in first at the New York State School Bus Safety Roadeo recently and earned the opportunity to go compete in the international competition in Boston, where she placed 10th. Of course, as a Star and Strand employee, she didn’t have to travel alone: Thorner says she was accompanied by seven fellow employees, including him and Scheilding. “She made us all really proud,” Thorner says.


Fleet Facts
School buses: 90
Students transported daily: 1,100
Districts served: 3
Transportation staff: 161
Area of service: 1,400 sq. miles

Related Topics: alternative fuels, behavior management, driver training, efficiency, morale, school bus security

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