In a time when many districts are facing serious budget crunches, Hempfield Area School District in Greensburg, Pa., is planning to save between $200,000 and $300,000 annually, thanks to a five-year contract with First Student.
Additionally, the district received a $1.3 million cash infusion by selling its entire fleet to the contractor.
“That extra money will come in handy at our schools,” says Jude Abraham, chief business administrator for the district.
Keeping the staff on board
One of the concerns district officials had about continuing to run an in-house pupil transportation program was the expense of employing administrators and other staff, such as drivers. Even part-time employees were eligible for pensions and healthcare, an added expense for the district.
Luckily, Abraham says, approximately 90 percent of the district’s employees moved to First Student when the contract went into effect on Oct. 1, 2010.
“We were actually able to save money by going to First Student, and First Student was able to keep the wages the same as the employees were making here at Hempfield, so they didn’t need to take a wage cut,” he adds.
Gary Catapano, First Student’s senior vice president of safety, says the new partnership has been highly successful.
“Basically almost all the drivers ended up coming to work for us, and the management team that was running the operation for the district also came on board and is working with us,” Catapano explains. “It was a seamless transition.”
New contract means new buses
After purchasing Hempfield’s aging fleet, First Student made significant upgrades to the equipment and purchased seven new buses.
“They buy us approximately 10 percent of our fleet per year of the contract. So, we received seven new buses last year and expect to receive seven new buses every year of the contract with First Student,” Abraham says.
First Student currently operates 60 Type C buses and 10 Type A buses for the district. The newly purchased buses are Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner C2s, which Catapano says offer many new safety features that better protect students. The contractor also purchased new Type A buses from Collins Bus Corp.
By the end of the district’s contract, at least half of the fleet will be brand new, Catapano says.
“I think [the district was] really struggling with an aging fleet that had a high maintenance cost per mile associated with it,” he adds. The new arrangement has alleviated those costs.
First Student improves safety
Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner C2s have large windshields and hoods that are shorter than those on a conventional bus, dramatically improving visibility for drivers, Catapano says.
“There are a bunch of features that the folks from Thomas have built into that bus that we really liked,” he says.
First Student also added some features to the buses to improve safety. The contractor worked with Child Check-Mate System to develop an upgraded version of Child Check-Mate that includes Theft Mate, a system that serves as an intrusion detection device.
Theft Mate, Catapano says, “lets us know if someone attempts to board the bus after we’ve got it parked.”
The Child Check-Mate system reminds Hempfield drivers to perform a sweep of the bus to confirm that no children are on board after the vehicle is returned to the bus yard.
“We’ve seen lots of improvements,” Abraham says. “[First Student’s] buses have equipment that can identify if a driver has been speeding. Also, they’ve got cameras on the buses.”
Routing changes save time
First Student has brought routing software and GPS to the buses serving the district, which has helped to decrease the time and number of routes it takes to pick up and drop off students.
“We’ve worked with [the district] in terms of routing and utilizing computer technology and our GPS system,” Catapano says. “Our knowledge and practices of routing helped to reduce the number of routes that they were operating.”
Contractor provides driver training
Catapano says that as one of the country’s largest school bus operators, First Student has developed safety and training best practices that have “benefited all the children who ride the buses every day.”
“The most important safety feature of any bus really is the driver,” he continues. “A well-trained, knowledgeable driver who is behind the wheel is going to have a big impact by operating that bus safely — and that’s more important than any of the features on the bus.”
Catapano says that First Student’s hiring practices and driver training program are “some very large pluses from a district perspective,” because they ensure that drivers are well qualified to transport students.
“Our training program is really focused on teaching people and exposing them to the types of issues they would deal with on a day-to-day basis on a school bus,” he says. “Then we combine that with hands-on experience on the bus, as well as behind-the-wheel driving.
“Because we operate so many miles each day, and do so many pickups and drop offs, we have the benefit of learning from our operating experience and history to understand the types of things that go on, and to develop best practices on how to address them from a safety perspective.”
Developing a strong partnership
Abraham says that the district’s decision to partner with First Student has been beneficial for a number of reasons.
“I could say that in dealing with First Student and their management, we have found that they are very professional and receptive to our requests,” Abraham says.
Catapano also speaks highly of the partnership. “I believe, having spent some time at [Hempfield] recently, they have a very good crew of people who are very dedicated,” he says. “They deliver great service, and I think the district is very, very happy. This is a really great success story about privatization.”