10 Top Shops for 2008

<i>SBF</i> Staff Editors Thomas McMahon, Claire Atkinson and Kelly Roher
Posted on March 1, 2008

Photo above: Ann Arbor Garage Crew Chief John Nikolich (center) and Transportation Director Brad Mellor (to Nikolich’s immediate left) credit their staff of mechanics with the shop’s success.


Shop strives for efficiency and excellence

Ann Arbor Public Schools
Ann Arbor, Mich.
Transportation at Ann Arbor Public Schools is managed by industry veterans Bradford Mellor, the district’s director of transportation for 13 years, and John Nikolich, who has been at the district for 28 years and serves as garage crew chief.

Both point to their fleet maintenance software as a key component in helping the department to achieve efficiencies and cut costs. The system tracks parts, labor, mileage and repair history. “Because we have about four years of good, solid data, looking at that data has saved us a ton of time and money,” Nikolich says. The department has reduced parts inventory, eliminated the position of parts clerk and can plan ahead for maintenance needs.

Mechanics log on to the system each time they start a job, which provides an accurate picture of actual time and labor costs, Mellor explains.

In addition, the district is part of a collaborative parts bidding system through the County Intermediate School District, allowing 10 area districts to buy cooperatively from vendors at the lowest possible cost. “We have 125 buses, but the district down the street with 30 isn’t going to have the buying power we have, and they stand to benefit,” Nikolich says.

He explains that the shop’s greatest strength, however, is its mechanics, who are State of Michigan Master Truck certified. Some even have ASE certification, and together, the group has 135 years of school bus maintenance experience. “We can’t say enough about the group of mechanics we have,” says Nikolich. Last year, Ann Arbor received a perfect inspection rating and commendation from the Michigan State Police.

Mechanics receive regular training every time the district purchases new buses. “We require the OE to provide us with training,” Nikolich says. “We’ve added that into the cost of purchasing buses every year, and that ensures that we get training on the newer systems.”

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 125 school buses, 26 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 8
Number of bus bays: 6
Annual mileage: 1.7 million
Students transported: 9,000
Schools served: 17

Doug Hogden (left), Nila Potter and Bill Gosse keep Burnett Transit’s buses in top shape.


Talent, training fuel success

Burnett Transit Inc.
Spencer, Wis.
When the only infraction found on a school bus fleet’s state inspection is a garbage can being too close to the handrail, it’s clear that the maintenance team is on top of its game.

Indeed, Wisconsin state inspectors have come to regard Burnett Transit’s bus fleet as one of the most well-maintained in the state, according to the company’s coordinating director, Bonnie Grueneberg.

“They know when they come to our terminal that they have to look pretty hard to find something to write up,” Grueneberg says. The fleet undergoes one annual scheduled inspection and occasional spot-check inspections throughout the year.

Grueneberg attributes the company’s outstanding inspection performance to its three talented and well-trained maintenance staff members: Bill Gosse, Doug Hogden and Nila Potter.

Gosse and Hogden are both ASE-certified school bus technicians. The team continually attends training seminars on topics ranging from tire maintenance to OSHA regulations. They’ve taken part in Wisconsin School Bus Association technician clinics and have traveled to Fort Valley, Ga., to learn specifics on the Blue Bird buses that Burnett Transit runs.

In addition to the school bus fleet, the maintenance team takes care of a number of other vehicles, including the four motorcoaches run by Burnett Transit’s sister division, Progressive Travel Inc. The combined operation is based in Spencer, which is in a rural area in central Wisconsin. The school bus business was launched in 1954 by Rue Burnett, whose son Joe now serves as president.

In the way of cutting costs, the company equips buses with retarders to reduce brake wear and Webasto engine heaters to reduce fuel consumption and avoid engine wear from cold starts in the winter.

With the exception of two spare buses, the fleet is parked indoors, protecting it from harsh weather and preventing fuel gelling on freezing mornings. When interviewed in mid-January, Grueneberg said that the temperature in Spencer was expected to drop as low as minus 30.

“We’re in our deep freeze,” she said.

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 23 school buses, 16 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 3
Number of bus bays: 4 work bays, 22 parking bays
Annual mileage:
School bus: 347,904;
motorcoach: 192,350
Students transported: 1,600
Districts served: 3

Allen Matuszczak (left) with mechanics James Lehman and Paul Monnat and dispatcher Reg Hoch.


Small department achieves big results

Lowville Academy & Central School
Lowville, N.Y.
The community of Lowville is home to about 3,500 people, and, according to Allen Matuszczak, “There’s probably 30,000 people in the county and 33,000 cows.”

Matuszczak, transportation and building maintenance supervisor for Lowville Academy and Central School, says being in a rural area enhances relations with nearby districts. He explains that the three or four surrounding districts work together as a kind of group supply house for parts. “Our inventories are very low, so when we don’t have a certain part to repair something, we can give a call to a neighboring school district,” Matuszczak says.

Lowville’s transportation department has received ratings of 92 percent or higher on New York Department of Transportation inspections for six consecutive years, achieving a rating of 97.7 percent in the 2006-07 school year.

The department has also cut three bus routes over the past six years, while student enrollment has increased or remained flat. Matuszczak explains that the department was able to maximize capacity without increasing fleet size by transitioning from a fleet of 60-passenger conventionals to 66- and 72-passenger transit-style buses. Buses would be replaced as drivers retired so that no layoffs were required.

In that vein, Matuszczak identifies people as the greatest strength of Lowville’s maintenance program. In addition to a dispatcher, the transportation department employs two mechanics. Matuszczak’s head mechanic has been at the district for 35 years, and the other mechanic has worked there for 20.

Time management is the department’s biggest maintenance challenge, says Matuszczak. Because the mechanics are also drivers, they have a narrow time frame in the middle of each day for making repairs. “Managing bus time down and getting that bus turned around in a manner that suits not only the driver but our needs, because we’re always running short on buses for extra trips — that’s the biggest challenge,” he says.

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 23 school buses, 3 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 3
Number of bus bays: 2
Annual mileage: 275,000
Students transported: 1,000
Schools served: 4
The transportation department at Montgomery County Public Schools recently moved into a new facility with more space and enhanced equipment.


Productivity, efficiency are top priorities

Montgomery County Public Schools
Mount Sterling, Ky.
Montgomery County Public Schools’ technicians have a combined 83 years of experience, and they fine-tune their expertise through a strict, state-provided annual training and recertification program.

Transportation Director Karen Gullett says the mechanics also attend special training seminars whenever vehicle components have been updated. “This is beneficial because it gives them the knowledge to work in-shop and we don’t have to outsource,” she explains. The department has also cuts costs through its participation in the Central Kentucky Educational Cooperative, which bids on reasonably priced bus parts for its members.

Gullett says the department’s rigorous preventive maintenance program has decreased on-road problems and facilitated a more accurate forecast of maintenance costs. Numerous data, including inventory and work orders, is tracked using Trapeze software, which was implemented three years ago. To ensure that the fleet remains in prime condition, each bus is inspected at least once a month, and several buses are replaced every one to two years.

To further boost efficiency, Gullett has invested in Pro-Link, a portable, handheld diagnostic device. She has also subscribed to Bus ISIS, a Web-based maintenance troubleshooting resource provided by IC Corporation.

Gullett is enthusiastic about the department’s future. Eight of its buses will be retrofitted with diesel particulate filters through funding from a grant provided by the EPA.

Moreover, in mid-2007, the transportation department moved into a new facility equipped with two bus lifts, a steam cleaner for the buses, a large parts room, a training/conference room, offices for the staff and a lounge for the drivers. The move was backed by strong support from the district’s superintendent and board of education, Gullett says.

“When we moved in, we were like kids in a candy shop,” she adds. “We’re still getting things organized, but the new environment has given the techs more room to work and it’s easier to schedule maintenance.”

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 57 school buses, plus other vehicles
Total shop staff: 7
Number of bus bays: 4
Annual mileage: 768,000
Students transported: 3,000
Schools served: 8

Transportation and Facilities Supervisor Dan Marling says the department’s bus lift enables his technicians to perform scheduled maintenance with ease.


Communication, planning drive progress

Nordonia Hills City School District
Northfield, Ohio
Dan Marling, transportation and facilities supervisor at Nordonia Hills City School District, believes that communication between his drivers and technicians — facilitated through the department’s maintenance reporting system — has played a substantial role in its progress over the last several years.

If drivers notice during their pre-trip inspections that a vehicle needs repair, they fill out a vehicle repair request form. Marling also encourages the drivers to verbally explain the malfunction to his mechanics; if, after three attempts to fix the problem, the driver is not satisfied with the vehicle’s performance, Marling steps in to resolve the issue.

“The goal is to establish camaraderie,” he says. “By implementing the reporting system, we’ve created a way to get everyone on the same page.”

Marling believes the department’s preventive maintenance program, which he developed with his mechanics, is a strong aspect of his operation. The vehicles’ components are thoroughly examined at least once a month. A lube is performed every 1,500 miles, oil and filter changes are performed every 6,000 miles and forms are filled out upon completion.

Moreover, the technicians must turn in a written schedule at the end of each month indicating all preventive maintenance that has been performed. This enables Marling to ensure that the operation is running efficiently.

The department did not have a dedicated preventive maintenance program when Marling joined the district five years ago. By keeping track of the fleet’s condition and inventory, the staff has observed a decrease in road calls and can plan their work rather than operate in crisis-management mode.

To cut costs, 85 percent of repairs are done in-house; more extensive maintenance, such as bus body painting, is outsourced. “One of the most exciting aspects of our progress is that we’re now tracking our development,” Marling adds. “We track our monthly expenses and yearly cost comparisons on Excel spreadsheets.”

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 48 school buses, 18 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 2 full-time technicians, 1 part-time technician
Number of bus bays: 2
Annual mileage: 553,340
Students transported: 3,265
Schools served: 7 in-district, 9 out-of-district

Special School District of St. Louis County has consistently earned Missouri’s two top school bus maintenance awards.


Bus shop accrues accolades

Special School District of St. Louis County
Town & Country, Mo.
There’s no slack to be found in the maintenance program at Special School District of St. Louis County.

The operation has a relatively high bus-to-technician ratio, at about 35:1. (SBF’s nationwide Maintenance Survey in this issue found an average ratio of about 19:1.) And the fleet of 143 buses includes only eight spares.

Despite the tight resources, the fleet has performed exceptionally well on state inspections. In the three years since Special School District re-launched its in-house transportation service (it was contractor-run for several years), it has consistently earned Missouri’s two top school bus maintenance awards.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol’s award recognizes fleets that pass its initial inspection with a score of 95 percent or better. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s award recognizes fleets that score at least 90 percent on the patrol’s inspection.

In a recent spot inspection, in which inspectors show up unannounced and examine 20 percent of the fleet, Special School District scored 100 percent.

The district’s preventive maintenance is scheduled every 4,000 miles or 45 days. Oil changes are done every 4,000 miles on small buses and every 8,000 miles on large buses.

The district transports mostly students who have special needs, so nearly all of the buses are equipped with air conditioning systems, and more than half are equipped with wheelchair lifts.

The maintenance team comprises four technicians, two utility/fuelers and one shop supervisor. All of the technicians are ASE certified — two of them at the master level. One of them participated in last year’s “America’s Best” competition for school bus technicians and inspectors.

Although their workload can be heavy, the staff members work efficiently and have been able to keep overtime down. Kenny Mulder, who serves as the district’s director of transportation but is actually an employee of consulting firm TransPar Group, says that teamwork is the key factor in the staff’s success.

“Their greatest strength is their ability to work together and with the drivers,” Mulder says. “They stay focused, and they stay busy.”

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 143 school buses
Total shop staff: 7
Number of bus bays: 7
Annual mileage: 2,665,780
Students transported: 1,670
Schools served: 118

Shop Manager Ken Farley (far left) and Transportation Director Blanca Souders (far right) cite their technicians’ skill and dedication.


Teamwork keeps operation running smoothly

St. Charles Community Unit School District 303
St. Charles, Ill.
Ken Farley, shop manager at St. Charles Community Unit School District 303, says the district’s technicians’ skill and dedication have made their operation a “well-oiled machine.”

This efficiency is the result of regular training and extensive experience. Farley and the technicians have 140 years among them, and four out of five members of the staff have ASE certifications, including several on the master level. “Their talents complement each other,” Farley explains, “so repairs that would result in days of downtime if they were outsourced are often completed in minutes.”

In Illinois, buses undergo a thorough state safety inspection every six months or 10,000 miles. Farley says that in the last five years, his district has had only two units that failed to pass on the first attempt, each due to a minor problem that surfaced during the test. There have also been numerous unscheduled inspections by state Department of Transportation enforcement officers, resulting in no units ordered out of service, he adds.

In the 11 years since Farley has been with the district, the department has increased the frequency with which its vehicles are inspected, thereby reducing on-road and component breakdowns.

Every 3,000 miles, brakes, tire pressure, tread depth, suspension and exhaust condition are checked and documented. A schedule has been established for fuel filter and transmission servicing; the drivers also bring in their buses for a “trip check” if they are going to travel beyond a 25-mile radius.

Both Farley and Transportation Director Blanca Souders believe the technicians and drivers work well together. Souders says the entire department is like a family and that there is an open line of communication. “The drivers aren’t afraid to write up their buses if they notice a problem,” she says. “Our objective is to safely transport the students.”

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 101 school buses, 50 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 5
Number of bus bays: 6
Annual mileage: 1,200,000+
Students transported: 11,000
Schools served: 17
Tok Transportation Services’ dedicated team of drivers keeps buses running in subzero temperatures.


Small-but-mighty fleet excels below zero

Tok Transportation Services
Tok, Alaska
Running buses in below-freezing temperatures is routine for Tok Transportation. “We deal with some pretty extreme temperatures here,” says Kristian Crozier, president and head mechanic. “That’s probably the toughest thing we have to put up with.” At press time, daytime highs were hovering around minus 20 degrees.

Despite facing rugged conditions, Tok Transportation has received commendations from the state’s school bus inspector for being Alaska’s best-maintained small school bus fleet for four of the past five years. Crozier has been in charge during those five years, after the death of his father, who ran the business for 21 years. Many of the company’s drivers have been on staff since the early days. “I couldn’t ask for a bunch of better drivers,” says Crozier. “If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know that I would’ve made it.”

Although he’s relatively new to the school bus industry, Crozier is no stranger to transportation, having worked at a Freightliner dealership, as well as for the Alaska Railroad. His familiarity with Freightliner is what prompted Crozier to select buses with Thomas bodies and Freightliner chassis. Tok Transportation maintains five regular-run buses and keeps two spares “ready to go at a moment’s notice, because at 60 below, if something breaks, you’ve got to be ready,” says Crozier.

He describes communication with his drivers as a key to the company’s success, particularly with regard to maintenance. “I can project what’s coming down the pipe as far as trouble just by talking to the drivers about what their buses are doing,” Crozier says. And if Crozier is out of the office, drivers leave messages on a large white board in the garage.

What do they do best at Tok Transportation? “We don’t let anything slide,” Crozier says. “As soon as a problem arises, it’s dealt with.”

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 7 school buses
Total shop staff: 1
Number of bus bays: 1
Annual mileage: 50,750
Students transported: 118
Schools served: 1

The maintenance team at Trussville City Schools comprises Philip “Red” Mulkey (left), Jerry Cataldo and Claude Massey.


New district off to great start

Trussville City Schools
Trussville, Ala.
When Trussville, Ala., broke away from Jefferson County Schools to launch its own school system, the new transportation department had no maintenance facility.

The local fire department came to the rescue, letting Trussville City Schools take over a shop that had been used as a storage building.

The district, now in its third year, has been able to do nearly all of its own repairs in the facility — including brake, engine and transmission repair; electrical work; tire mounting and balancing; and windshield and glass replacement — outsourcing very few procedures.

The crew, which includes shop foreman Jerry Cataldo and technicians Claude Massey and Philip “Red” Mulkey, maintains a fleet of 43 school buses and a handful of district trucks and cars.

The bus fleet, most of which was handed down from Jefferson County, has performed flawlessly on its two state inspections thus far. Both times, there were zero deficiencies found, earning the Trussville operation two certificates of achievement from the Alabama State Department of Education (DOE).

The maintenance team members are all certified by the DOE, and they take advantage of vendor training whenever possible. Their combined experience working on buses is more than 60 years.

Trussville’s preventive maintenance program brings buses in for inspection every 30 days. “We fix everything we find on the spot,” Cataldo says. “We have very few on-the-road breakdowns, which we attribute to just staying on top of things.”

In the district’s early days, the crew had to borrow repair equipment, but they were soon able to procure their own. Cataldo says that Support Services Director Anthony Montalto has seen to it that the team gets all of the equipment it needs.

The team continues to thrive in the borrowed fire department shop, but a new facility may be on the horizon. For now, though, the young district is focused on building a new high school.

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 43 school buses, 6 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 3
Number of bus bays: 3
Annual mileage: 299,606
Students transported: 2,000
Schools served: 4

West County Transportation Agency serves 16 school districts throughout Sonoma County, Calif., with its fleet of 140 buses.


Cooperative effort yields safety, savings

West County Transportation Agency
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Providing transportation service for one school district would seem to be enough of a challenge. West County Transportation Agency (WCTA) serves 16 districts.

The agency is a joint powers agreement among those districts, all of which are in Sonoma County, Calif., and many of which are relatively small. Since it was formed in 1988, WCTA has been providing its member districts considerable savings on their transportation costs through economies of scale and a highly efficient maintenance program.

Under the leadership of Steve Christensen, manager of vehicle maintenance, a staff of seven mechanics and several support personnel keeps WCTA’s fleet of 140 school buses in top shape. They also maintain a number of buses, public works vehicles and fire trucks for other entities.

Michael Rea, executive director of WCTA, says that one of the highlights of the maintenance program is its training component. Mechanics are encouraged to earn ASE certification, and most of them have achieved master status. They’ve undergone training in compressed natural gas engine technology, which powers 44 of the WCTA buses. Three of the mechanics are also certified to work on fire trucks and pumps.

WCTA also has an apprentice program, in which a new mechanic is required to attend and pass a heavy-duty vehicle maintenance training program at the local junior college. With the passage of each class in the program, the mechanic is given a salary increase.

There is currently one apprentice on the WCTA staff. The two senior-most mechanics have been with the agency for 18 years; another has been there 15 years.

Rea says that a key strength of the maintenance program is that the mechanics know their role. “They understand that they’re providing a service — they try to focus on listening to what the drivers say. In a lot of operations, the mechanics get tired of listening to the drivers,” Rea says.

Fleet Facts
Fleet: 140 school buses
Total shop staff: 14
Number of bus bays: 5
Annual mileage: 1,218,044
Students transported: 3,500
Districts served: 16

Related Topics: efficiency, preventive maintenance

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