Kings Canyon Unified School District (USD) in Reedley, Calif., faces the unique challenge of transporting a population of students from the Central Valley floor to the Sierra Nevada Mountains each day — a change in elevation from 230 feet to 6,700 feet.
"A school day in transportation can begin in the mornings with dense fog in the valley and sunshine in the mountains and end with rain and winds in the valley and blizzard and snow conditions in the mountains," says Director of Transportation John Clements, who has been with the district for 37 years in various roles.
The district primarily serves students in rural areas, which makes school transportation even more essential.
"Due to our rural remoteness, we have no other transportation options to bring our students to school. Transit service is minimal or non-existent over much of our district," he says. "Only one in five families in our district even has a second car."
Introducing an electric bus
Kings Canyon USD was the first district in the nation to receive Trans Tech Bus' eTrans all-electric Type A school bus. It will replace the district's aging No. 9 bus, a gasoline-powered Thomas Built 1980 model Chevrolet. The No. 9 was the district's first wheelchair lift-equipped bus.
"[The No. 9] has several hundred thousand miles on it and is really too small and old for continued use in our fleet," Clements says.
According to Clements, the eTrans will complete two 20-mile round trips daily between two of the district's valley communities and "then provide door-to-door services within those communities to the schools of service" for special-needs students.
Kings Canyon is currently working on several clean air grant applications to obtain as many as five more eTrans buses in the next year.
"Several [of those buses will serve] as replacement buses and several as demonstration program buses to share with neighboring school districts to learn the advantages of electric school buses," Clements explains.
The eTrans currently in the district's fleet has child integrated safety seats for preschoolers with special needs, as well as a Ricon wheelchair lift with Q-Straint securement devices.
"Receiving this eTrans school bus has been the most exciting professional adventure for me in some time," Clements says. "My great staff and district support have made it possible for me to have the fun and enjoyment I am experiencing as the eTrans is launched at Kings Canyon Unified."
Buses for special ed like any other bus
Since the mid-1980s, the district has worked with the local county Office of Education "to place special-needs students in their least restrictive environment that includes training to ride regular-education transportation," Clements explains.
"Even our special-needs routes transport regular-education students in remote areas to reach their school sites," he adds. "Our goal was to have these students not feel as if they were riding on a small special-education bus, but rather a school bus that looks like any other bus in our system."
The district currently uses its buses to transport three special-needs students to services outside the district. In the next few years, the district intends to increase its fleet size to assume more of the services that are contracted out.
Defect-free buses are a goal
The California Highway Patrol (CHP) requires that primary safety items in school buses be inspected every 3,000 miles or 45 calendar days, Clements explains.
He says Kings Canyon buses are usually serviced every 40 days or sooner, due to long routes and field trips.
"If a bus is scheduled on an extended trip to the Bay Area, central coast or the Southern California area, our bus may receive an additional inspection by the shop technicians," he explains. "Should defects be found by our service technicians or reported by our drivers, the bus is sent to our level two or level three technicians for repair or, for specialty items, to outside vendors located in Fresno."
The department's goal is to have defect-free buses that are clean inside and out.
"Our image of our school buses running throughout our district is a direct reflection upon our educational system, as more of the public comes in contact with our buses than the classroom environment," Clements says.
Staying prepared for inspections
Kings Canyon's fleet is subjected to two scheduled inspections by the CHP each year due to its size. CHP officers examine half of the fleet during each visit.
Additionally, there are two random annual inspections, in which 10 percent of the fleet is examined.
In the most recent inspection of 31 buses, CHP officers found only one warning light that had failed. Clements notes that the district has had a number of inspections over the past 20 years in which no defects were found.
Low turnover, community outreach
More than half of the Kings Canyon transportation department staff has more than 10 years of experience, and turnover is very low.
Employees are recognized for their long-term service and safe driving records with annual awards and CHP safe driving certificates. The department also gives awards to retirees and holds potlucks and breakfasts throughout the year to honor them.
Additionally, transportation staffers decorate school buses for annual community events such as Fiesta Day and the Christmas Electric Light Parade. The department also holds a bus evacuation program as part of the local fire department's open house.
Each day, "our people come together as a team to safely and efficiently move over 4,000 students in a two-hour period over our varying terrains to reach their education," Clements says. "However, the services provided to activity trips and the athletic programs affect the entire 10,000 student population of our district."
School buses: 67 with 3 additions arriving this spring
Students transported daily: 4,212
Those students with special needs: 104
Schools served: 19 district schools, 4 special-needs sites
Transportation staff: 62
Area of service: 599 sq. miles