Photo above: The bus technicians and fleet maintenance supervisor at Bethlehem Central School District keep a low out-of-service rate.
Bethlehem Central School District
With a motivated crew, ranging from two-year newbies to 21-year veterans, the transportation department at the Bethlehem Central School District operates an efficient shop. The bus-to-technician ratio is about 20:1, but the department’s out-of-service rate has been below 3 percent for the last few years.
According to Transportation Director Al Karam, it’s the technicians that have made the department run so smoothly. “There’s nothing we ask of them that they don’t do for us,” he says. “They focus on safety; they’re not territorial. They’re a great bunch of people to be around.”
Internally trained, the technicians also take advantage of vendor educational seminars about twice a year for continual learning.
One of the biggest challenges in running the department is budget, Karam says. “Everybody is under the crunch, so we have to do everything we can to help in maintaining the expenditures.”
The department’s maintenance budget grows at the inflation rate, with the 2008 total being only $5,600 over the previous year’s costs.
A bus replacement plan helps keep costs down. Looking five years ahead and continually adjusting the plan for the needs of the individual buses, the department can project how many buses need to be replaced each year and plan accordingly. In addition, everyone is involved in the decision- making process regarding which school buses to buy, Karam says.
The fleet transports 5,778 students to 60 schools, logging 1.3 million miles annually.
To lower the bus-to-technician ratio, the department is looking to add another technician to the staff, even though there is a projected decrease in students. “We’re up against some tough budgetary times this year and probably next year, but we do need it,” Karam says.
Bringing down the bus-to-technician ratio may not cost as much as some would expect, Karam notes, as it can reduce or eliminate overtime.
— THI DAO
Fleet: 145 school buses
Total shop staff: 8
Number of bus bays: 7
Annual mileage: 1.3 million
Students transported: 5,778
Schools served: 60
Bradford Area School District
Transportation Director Barry Bryan (second from left) is impressed by technicians Randy Payne (far left), Jason Pierce and Fran Doutt's teamwork.
Bradford (Pa.) Area School District’s transportation department has undergone dramatic changes in the last two years. The maintenance staff comprises three committed school bus technicians who have implemented numerous cost-saving practices, including eliminating over $16,000 in obsolete inventory and increasing the mileage between oil and automatic transmission fluid changes.
Senior technician Randy Payne says he and the other technicians, Jason Pierce and Fran Doutt, also designed a new preventive maintenance schedule that has reduced vehicle breakdowns, improved driver satisfaction and led the department to perform well on state inspections. All of the vehicles passed in the last two years, according to Transportation Director Barry Bryan.
Payne is an advocate of ASE certification; he is certified at the master level. Pierce is ASE certified as well, with Doutt planning to test this spring. “Once we reach 100-percent certified, we’re going to pursue ASE’s Blue Seal of Excellence recognition,” Payne says.
In addition, he hopes the department can free up funding to recruit a company to provide on-site training. American Trainco is one company being considered.
The technicians have also established a practice of inviting a high school senior who is interested in learning about diesel mechanics to the shop and instructing him or her for the year, and Bryan says they are currently arranging to host an entire class of seniors. “It provides the kids with great hands-on experience and helps connect our operation with the rest of the school district,” he says.
This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to future projects for the department. “I’m researching grant funding for diesel particulate and crankcase ventilation filter retrofits,” Payne says, “and we’re updating our fueling system to include an electronic card reader and tracking software to better gauge fuel use and allow drivers to fuel the buses upon returning from extracurricular activities.”
— KELLY ROHER
Fleet: 32 school buses, 11 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 3
Number of bus bays: 6
Annual mileage: 500,000
Students transported: 3,000
Schools served: 5
Cherokee County School District
Transportation Director Ken Johnson (back row, left) and Vehicle Maintenance Coordinator David Gazaway (back row, second from left) are proud of their technicians' proficiency.
The maintenance team at Cherokee County School District (CCSD) in Canton, Ga., boasts impressive accomplishments. Transportation Director Ken Johnson says 100 percent of the district’s vehicles passed state inspection last year. Also, one technician won top honors in a state competition and placed 13th in the “America’s Best” competition.
“We feel that’s indicative of the type of maintenance program we’ve established,” Johnson says. Vehicle Maintenance Coordinator David Gazaway agrees, saying that the greatest strength of the program is the staff.
CCSD’s 18 technicians are split between two shops. Gazaway says most have worked for the district for more than 20 years and about 14 are ASE certified, four at the master level.
The department’s preventive maintenance schedule and maintenance software have also been key in facilitating a smooth-running fleet. In 1998, the department began using a program called School System Fleet Maintenance that was developed for the staff by Evenson Consulting Services.
Another key to the department’s success is the solid relationship between the drivers and technicians. An Exemplary Driver program was implemented 10 years ago to encourage an open line of communication. Drivers must keep their buses properly maintained to be recognized at the end of the year, and Johnson says the technicians and foremen help them make sure all paperwork is turned in and that maintenance issues are reported correctly.
CCSD’s bus fleet has doubled in the past decade to support the growth that the district has undergone, and Johnson says it has been challenging to accommodate the expansion with a tight budget. Improving route efficiency and eliminating the practice of allowing employees to drive the vehicles home at day’s end have alleviated some of the strain. “Cutting from maintenance would be our last resort,” Johnson says. “We want our buses to be well maintained so that they’re safe for the students.”
— KELLY ROHER
Fleet: 449 school buses, 109 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 20
Number of bus bays: 8
Annual mileage: 4 million
Students transported: 27,000
Schools served: 38
Frederick County Public Schools
The Frederick County Public Schools garage has five bus bays, with two in-ground lifts, plus a sixth bay for working on the district's white fleet trucks.
Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS), located in Winchester, Va., is the state’s northernmost district. “We have some in-town subdivisions, but we also have very rural areas,” Andy Eaton says. “We deal with all kinds of different roads: gravel, dirt roads, asphalt roads — we pretty much run the gamut.”
Eaton, FCPS shop manager, explains that along with the varied terrain of the area, the district’s transportation department also deals with constantly changing weather conditions, including flooding, snow, ice and cold temperatures.
Despite these challenges, Eaton says the biggest challenge in maintaining the school bus fleet is a shrinking budget.
“We strive to overcome the challenge of budget constraints through our extensive preventative maintenance program that works to minimize on unscheduled repairs,” he says. “We are always on the lookout for new strategies to enhance our existing computerized maintenance, fueling and routing programs.”
Engine, transmission and ABS problems are all diagnosed and managed on computer software systems, Eaton says. “We are out in the country, but we’re pretty technologically advanced.”
The bulk of the workload for FCPS mechanics is performing inspections and services to meet the state’s 2,500-mile/30-day inspection requirement. In addition, the shop takes care of day-to-day breakdowns, work orders and driver write-ups. “We do everything, including engine and transmission replacements — we do it all,” Eaton says.
He and three other mechanics in the shop are master school bus technicians. “We encourage all shop employees to participate in the ASE certification program, with most holding the ASE master certification in their respective fields,” he says.
Like many shops, Eaton says the operation’s greatest strength is the people on staff and their professionalism. “Most of us have been on the staff over 10 years,” he says, adding that one mechanic has been with FCPS for about 39 years.
— CLAIRE ATKINSON
Fleet: 198 school buses, 147 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 10
Number of bus bays: 5
Annual mileage: 2 million
Students transported: 12,987
Schools served: 22
Gaylord Community Schools
Thanks to the work of Douglas Francis (left) and Ronald Holloway, Gaylord Community Schools' fleet aces state inspections.
Since 1990, Gaylord Community Schools has consistently scored 100 percent on state inspections. That record is especially impressive considering that a maintenance crew of two is responsible for the 33-vehicle fleet.
Transportation Director Susan Jenkins attributes that success to her staff’s exceptional organizational skills and patience. Maintenance follows a schedule guided by mileage and time.
“They know what needs to be done, and they get it done,” she says. “You never see them hurried or upset, because everything is laid out for the day.”
Jenkins also notes that the mechanics are always on call for whatever needs the bus operators may have outside of scheduled maintenance. “If something needs to be repaired, it is ready for the driver that day,” Jenkins says. “We do all maintenance and repairs at our facility. Our repair shop is efficient, well-organized, and always clean.”
She believes most of that gung-ho attitude comes from the mechanics’ focus on doing everything right. “They would never take a shortcut. I think personal pride in their job is huge.”
Though the temperature on winter mornings often dips far below zero, it has not caused problems with the fleet, which is a testament to the hard work of the staff.
The fleet includes 31 school buses, which transport 2,500 students daily and log nearly 300,000 miles per year.
The mechanics stay sharp by attending vendor shows or day seminars whenever possible, even though they already have extensive experience.
Head mechanic and transportation assistant Douglas Francis has been in charge of the Gaylord bus fleet for 23 of the 26 years he’s worked as a mechanic for the district. He joined the staff almost straight out of high school.
Ronald Holloway, a Gaylord mechanic for three years, had previous experience working on logging trucks and motorcycles.
— ANGELA LU
Fleet: 31 school buses, 2 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 2
Number of bus bays: 4 (one is used as wash bay)
Annual mileage: 292,341
Students transported: 2,500
Schools served: 8
George Krapf Jr. & Sons Inc.
West Chester, Pa.
Some of Krapf's techs have been with the company for as long as 30 years. They serve as mentors for younger techs.
The Krapf family built its first maintenance facility in the early 1940s. Nearly seven decades later, the shop is still an integral part of the bus company, although it has been added onto numerous times.
The company now operates six maintenance facilities, but the original remains the largest, with close to 500 vehicles being maintained there.
George Krapf Jr. & Sons Inc. currently runs a total of 908 school buses, transporting more than 85,000 students daily. The buses are on a scheduled preventive maintenance program determined by their engine-chassis combination. They undergo annual inspections by Pennsylvania police and biannual inspections by staff members. Additionally, each vehicle is gone over with a fine-tooth comb during the summer break, including an interior detailing and a trip through the company’s body shop.
Krapf employs a total of 36 maintenance staff members. There is a core group of technicians who go way back with the company — some as long as 30 years.
“We lean on that group pretty hard to mentor the younger techs,” CEO Blake Krapf says.
The company has had success in hiring technicians upon graduation from local trade schools. Many of them are ASE certified.
Blake Krapf says that the company’s biggest challenge related to maintenance is the increasing costs of parts, tires and equipment. To that end, a supply chain manager position was created to focus and organize purchasing.
The company has employed a number of other efforts to cut costs as well as protect the environment. For example, a water recycling system is used in washing the fleet, and used oil is burned to heat the facilities.
The company also runs an innovative “Vehicle Maintenance Assistants” program. Five vans are stocked with parts and fluids. Each is staffed by school bus drivers on a rotating basis. The drivers check each vehicle weekly, topping off fluids and addressing any problems with lights, mirrors, crossing arms, stops arms, etc.
“This system allows our techs to focus on bigger-ticket items,” Krapf says.
— THOMAS McMAHON
Fleet: 908 school buses, 27 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 36
Number of bus bays: 30
Annual mileage: 11 million+
Students transported: 85,000
Schools served: 150
Independent School District 196
The maintenance team at ISD 196 has earned high marks on state inspections and in a survey of bus drivers.
At Independent School District (ISD) 196, the school bus maintenance team gets high marks from some of its key “customers”: the school bus drivers.
In a survey conducted by the transportation department last year, drivers were asked to rate the shop. In response to the prompt “I feel safe while driving my bus because it is properly maintained,” 99 percent said that they “strongly agree” or “agree.” The other 1 percent said that they “somewhat agree.”
The results were essentially the same for other prompts, such as “The shop personnel respond to me in a professional manner when my bus breaks down” and “The shop personnel make on-road repairs/bus changes in a timely manner.”
The district’s fleet has also performed outstandingly in annual inspections by the Minnesota State Patrol. Randy Dukek, ISD 196’s coordinator of transportation, says that the fleet last year had an average of only 1 point deducted per bus (25 points deducted is a failure).
The shop staff comprises eight vehicle technicians and one head technician. Two of them have been with the district since 1970 and 1975, respectively. Some of the newer technicians earned degrees from a vocational technical school.
The shop is open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., which gives the transportation department coverage from before the first drivers come in to pre-trip their buses until well after the last activity buses return from trips. And since there are fewer bus bays than technicians, spreading out the technicians over this schedule allows each one to have a bay to use at all times.
The technicians demonstrated their ingenuity by developing a switch on a bus that cuts the power and brake booster, allowing drivers to be trained in emergency stopping on a closed course.
The training idea had come to Dukek after hearing about a bus in another district that lost power and rolled backward down a hill.
“I went to the shop and said, ‘Can you do this?’ and they did it,” Dukek says.
— THOMAS McMAHON
Fleet: 203 school buses, 25 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 9
Number of bus bays: 6
Annual mileage: 3 million
Students transported: 25,000
Schools served: 44
Mesquite Independent School District
Mesquite ISD transportation staff salvaged a school bus to be converted into a tow truck for the district.
Mesquite, Texas, is a suburb of Dallas and home to the Mesquite Championship Rodeo — part of the Professional Bull Riding tour. “It’s a pretty big deal,” says Mike Horn, administrative officer for the Mesquite Independent School District’s (MISD) transportation department.
The district’s mechanics keep track of a “herd” of about 30 school buses each, keeping a log of all maintenance issues that arise with each vehicle. “They know them like the back of their hand,” Horn says. For that reason, the department has not invested in a software system to manage shop activity. “You can ask [the mechanics] a question about the inventory and they can tell you off the top of their head,” Horn says.
Fleet Supervisor Keith McCollum describes the school bus drivers as the mechanics’ customers. “Without drivers, [mechanics] wouldn’t have a job,” he explains.
Mechanics perform preventive maintenance every 10,000 miles on their assigned buses. In addition, the last Wednesday of every month is “Oil Night,” when belts, hoses and fluids are checked on every bus.
Efficiency is a way of life in the shop, with several innovations in place. For example, before buses are scrapped at the end of their lifecycle, shop staff pull any parts that can be reused in other vehicles — even body panels, saving up to $800 per panel.
McCollum decided to recycle an entire vehicle by converting a school bus into a tow truck capable of hauling the district’s heavy duty vehicles. By salvaging and repurposing the school bus, McCollum was able to save the district over $196,000 (the cost of a brand new tow truck).
In what is perhaps MISD’s most innovative maintenance practice, buses regularly get a 20-minute “transfusion” from the Enviro-Kleen machine, an invention of McCollum’s. Enviro- Kleen circulates a highly concentrated chemical through the injection system in an effort to reduce emissions, oil and fuel consumption, and wear and tear on the injectors. McCollum has been collecting data on the benefits of this regular service and hopes to register the device with the Environmental Protection Agency.
— CLAIRE ATKINSON
Fleet: 143 school buses, 14 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 5
Number of bus bays: 9
Annual mileage: 1.2 million
Students transported: 8,800
Schools served: 47
Murfreesboro City Schools
Joe Golden (left) and Randy Mealer keep Murfreesboro City Schools' fleet of 56 vehicles in top shape.
At Murfreesboro City Schools, technicians Joe Golden and Randy Mealer demonstrate their commitment to safety by keeping the fleet of 56 school buses and other vehicles in top shape.
“Joe and Randy firmly believe that child safety is our No. 1 priority, so no bus is allowed to leave the lot unless it is in proper working order,” says Debra Savely, supervisor of transportation and safety.
The department extensively records and stores data in case maintenance records are requested in an emergency. Bus repair request forms are logged and stored. The technicians take three tread-depth readings on each tire to ensure proper inflation for fuel economy purposes and to predict when new tires will be needed. This information is also logged.
Additional safety measures include performing monthly preventive maintenance on each wheelchair lift and 3,000- and 45,000-mile factory service checks, for which documentation is available for state inspectors.
“Our state inspections have always been exemplary — zero defects,” Savely says. “Clearly, this is a direct result of the care Joe and Randy take on our buses.”
After two rear-end collisions in one week, and following a driver suggestion, a 4- by 6-inch flashing red LCD brake light was installed in the center of the back of each bus. “What we’ve added is bigger, brighter and more intense,” Savely says. “You can see it in the middle of the day.”
In response to high temperatures on buses on hot days, the department began providing bottles of water to passengers on the hottest days. Golden and Mealer located containers, labeled them by bus number and then filled them with water bottles and ice.
A telling comment on the department came from a bus salesperson who took a look at the fleet. “He wanted to know how we got so many new buses,” Savely says. “We told him the ages of many of the buses. [His] comment was, ‘You must have one great technical team to have buses that look like these.’”
— THI DAO
Fleet: 23 school buses, 33 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 2
Number of bus bays: 2
Annual mileage: 239,000
Students transported: 2,216
Schools served: 12
Polk County Public Schools
Director of Vehicle and Safety Services David Milhorn (far right, back row) says his technicians have won first place honors in state competitions.
The maintenance staff at Polk County Public Schools in Bartow, Fla., takes to heart Director of Vehicle and Safety Services David Milhorn’s motto, “We’re not hauling oranges, we’re transporting kids,” as they service the district’s vehicles.
The dedication of Milhorn’s 32 school bus technicians and auxiliary maintenance staff is evident in the Vehicle and Safety Services department’s 98.7-percent score on a recent three-year audit conducted by Florida Department of Education (DOE) officials. “The DOE sets very high standards and I feel like we excel in meeting them,” Milhorn says.
DOE officials also inspect the district’s school buses every 30 days. The maintenance staff prepares for these rigorous reviews by examining each component on the buses every 26 days and signing a checklist upon completion. “Our funding comes from the DOE, and our techs know that students’ safety is at stake, so they take the inspections very seriously and take pride in doing their work correctly,” Milhorn says.
Experience, training and teamwork play a substantial role in the technicians’ top-notch performance. Many have more than 20 or 30 years of experience and are ASE certified in multiple areas. Moreover, Milhorn says the school bus drivers promptly notify the techs if buses malfunction, and the techs, in turn, treat the drivers with respect. “We follow the philosophy that the drivers are the technicians’ customers,” he explains.
For his part, Milhorn ensures that his staff works in an environment conducive to productivity. The department is currently renovating one of its three multi-bay garages and plans to build a fourth shop next year.
In addition, he consistently evaluates the cost-effectiveness of outsourcing labor versus performing maintenance in house. This diligence has paid off. “We have a good record of spending our dollars wisely,” Milhorn says. “We typically stay in the top five [school districts] within the state.”
— KELLY ROHER
Fleet: 525 school buses, nearly 500 other vehicles
Total shop staff: 56
Number of bus bays: 36
Annual mileage: 9 million+
Students transported: 49,000+
Schools served: 115