Management

15 Tips to Boost Efficiency

Thomas McMahon
Posted on August 7, 2014

1. Tap into the benefits of oil analysis. At Cassadaga Valley Central School District in Sinclairville, New York, engine oil analysis has benefited the operation in two key ways: First, it has decreased oil change intervals fleet-wide by about 50%.

“When you consider how much oil a bus holds and then figure [in the cost of] the oil filter as well, it can be a large savings,” says Bob Gilkinson, who implemented an oil analysis program after he became Cassadaga’s transportation supervisor about three years ago.

The second key benefit of oil analysis is that it provides an opportunity to discover any issues with oil contamination.

“We have had several buses where we have found coolant in the engine oil that was not visible to the eye but showed up on the analysis,” says Gilkinson, who is a former heavy equipment mechanic. “These buses were still under warranty, so there was a huge savings in repair costs that did not have to be taken on by the district.”

Cassadaga’s oil analysis has also identified fuel in the oil, which, again, couldn’t be seen by the naked eye.

“In every case that we have found an issue with one of our buses, it has avoided a major breakdown and very costly repairs that would have otherwise gone undetected until it was possibly too late and caused major engine damage,” Gilkinson says.

2. Decrease deadhead.
At the Mason County Transportation Cooperative in Shelton, Washington, a shuttle program for drivers has increased efficiency by cutting down on deadhead — in other words, miles driven without children on the bus.

“We have schools that are not very close to our bus compound, and so we leave the buses out there at the schools during the day and one bus shuttles the drivers back here to their cars,” explains Sandi Thompson, director of transportation for the co-op, which serves three school districts. “We used to have all of the buses return in the morning and then go back out to get the students in the afternoon.”

In the past few years, since the shuttle program was implemented, the co-op has achieved significant savings in fuel and wear and tear on the buses.

Virginia Beach (Va.) City Public Schools has also significantly reduced deadhead miles through routing construction and design.

“We assign routes to drivers in the closest proximity to their parking locations and pair them with other schools in the tier structure that ensures lower [deadhead] mileage,” says David Pace, director of transportation services. “Since we do not centrally park school buses, this design is effective and workable.”

3. Reduce road calls with sand
. Green Bay, Wisconsin-based Lamers Bus Lines has a number of routes that cover remote areas and sometimes require driving into driveways and farm yards to turn around. When there’s snow and ice on the ground, school buses are often susceptible to getting stuck in those types of rural locations.

  • At Lamers Bus Lines, coffee containers filled with sand help drivers if their buses get stuck in snow and ice, avoiding road calls.
    At Lamers Bus Lines, coffee containers filled with sand help drivers if their buses get stuck in snow and ice, avoiding road calls.

To get buses unstuck while avoiding the time and cost of road calls, Lamers provides repurposed coffee containers filled with sand for the buses that travel these challenging routes.

“It [was] a hard winter in Wisconsin, and on one morning alone these saved us from chasing three buses,” says Cindi Lawler, school bus operations manager at Lamers. “These were drivers that called in stuck. We asked them if they used the sand, they gave it a try, and they were out and moving, saving us a major delay on the route. It would have been a 30-minute drive just to get to their area.”

The sand-filled containers also come in handy for lift-equipped buses. In icy conditions, these drivers can create a sand path down the side of the bus and around the lift to secure their footing as they deploy the lift and load the wheelchair.

The sand-filled coffee containers are “a simple little thing that has paid us large dividends,” Lawler says.

4. Find efficiencies in fueling. To eliminate the issue of buses getting backed up at fuel pumps — and drivers getting paid to wait in those lines — Litchfield Elementary School District #79 in Litchfield Park, Arizona, created a program called the Fuel Crew.

Student transporters (the district’s title for school bus drivers) add their bus to a list by 9 a.m. on the mornings their bus needs fuel. Then a four-person team fuels the buses on the list. Walker says that the team usually completes the task in less than an hour.

“The student transporters enjoy not having to fuel their buses,” Director of Transportation Jeff Walker says, adding that “gossip has also decreased since employees don’t have idle time at the fuel pumps.”

In addition to the fuel crew, Litchfield specs 100-gallon fuel tanks on its general-education buses, which reduces the frequency with which they need to be refueled.

  • Jeff Vrabel Sr., operations manager at Transit Service Inc., has computerized forms to save time in the hiring process.
    Jeff Vrabel Sr., operations manager at Transit Service Inc., has computerized forms to save time in the hiring process.

5. Enhance hiring efficiency. Computerized forms can make the hiring process more efficient.

“Too often, there are numerous forms [for applicants] to fill out, and it takes a lot of time to get it done,” says Jeff Vrabel Sr., operations manager at Transit Service Inc., which serves special-needs students in Ohio’s Mahoning and Trumbull counties. “I have computerized my forms and have them almost completely filled out when the applicant comes in for the interview. In doing so, I become familiar with the applicant before we have the interview.”

The “infopak,” as Vrabel calls it, includes a questionnaire that Vrabel sends to the references listed on the application. He says that he includes an envelope and gets more than 95% of them back.

“The applicants seem to like it, too, because they don’t have to write their name and address so many times,” Vrabel says. “In addition, now all the information that HR needs can be presented in a simple packet that has all the required information. [It is] much easier to copy for those who need it.”

Download a sample form from Transit Service Inc. at Schoolbus
fleet.com/resources/Infopak-Sample.pdf

6. Cut clutter, organize the shop. Al Karam, director of transportation at Shenendehowa Central Schools in Clifton Park, New York, says one area that often doesn’t get enough attention when looking at efficiency is the school bus shop. With that in mind, he recommends focusing on the organization and efficiencies of two critical areas: the parts room and the work bays.

To cut down on the amount of time it takes to locate a specific part, Karam says there should be a process in place that addresses the following:

1.    Location of parts
2.    Reorder points
3.    Organized layout
4.    Proper inventory control and
    reconciliation

  • Removing clutter in school bus work bays can help in boosting efficiency and the safety of staff members.
    Removing clutter in school bus work bays can help in boosting efficiency and the safety of staff members.

“Further, in most school districts that maintain their own fleets, the practice is to purchase parts and have them on the shelf just in case they are needed,” Karam says. “This thought process is old and archaic. Most parts can be had [on the] same day or at least within 72 hours or earlier if you want to pay a modest fee for overnight delivery.”

Transportation directors and their head mechanics or fleet supervisors should conduct thorough analyses of their parts usage, Karam says. Parts that are not “fast movers” and are just taking up space should be rolled back for credit, if possible, or auctioned off.

“We must ensure that the technicians’ time is spent on the buses,” Karam says, “and not waiting or looking for parts or consumables because the parts room is cluttered and disorganized.”

Removing clutter in the work bays can also boost efficiency and safety.
“The less stuff in the work bay, the safer and more efficient the technician becomes,” Karam says. “Not only does a cluttered work bay cause inefficiencies, but [it] could end up costing the district a lot of money due to workers comp cases should a tech get hurt in a cluttered space.”

At his previous district, Karam had taken on the duties of fleet maintenance supervisor (in addition to his role as director of transportation) because of budget cuts. He spent two years reorganizing the district’s shop and parts room.

“I probably removed over $50,000 in old, obsolete parts for buses that were sold 12 to 18 years ago. My goal is to reduce my parts budget and buy only what is needed at the time,” Karam says. “My other goal is to train my technician staff to replace parts before they fail, again utilizing parts that are already on the shelf.”

7. Utilize technology. Pace of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, recommends utilizing a combination of technologies to enhance school transportation efficiency:

•    A computerized routing system to help construct efficient school bus routes.
•    GPS units on every bus to help optimize routing; to monitor idling time, driving habits that impact costs (speed, hard braking, etc.) and personal use of buses; and to validate on-the-clock work hours. “The validation of work hours is significant due to the fact that we are not centrally parked and the drivers do not clock in or clock out,” Pace says.
•    Two-way radios to communicate bus changes and to identify buses in closest proximity to routes needing coverage. “Coupled with the GPS, the dispatchers can track school buses on a large screen monitor to immediately dispatch the closest school bus via radio to broken down buses or bus routes without an available substitute,” Pace says.
•    Fleet maintenance software that can track such items as expenditures, downtime of vehicles, adherence to maintenance schedules, fuel usage (miles per gallon), and replacement criteria.

  • Transportation Coordinator Kala Henkensiefken and a colleague at Brainerd Public Schools came up with an innovative way to reduce delivery costs.
    Transportation Coordinator Kala Henkensiefken and a colleague at Brainerd Public Schools came up with an innovative way to reduce delivery costs.

    8. Use buses for deliveries.
    Brainerd (Minn.) Public Schools has enhanced efficiency by using a bus to transport cargo, in addition to students.


In brainstorming ways to cut costs, Transportation Coordinator Kala Henkensiefken and Health and Safety Coordinator Denise Sundquist realized that the delivery of interdepartmental mail and laundry to a school in Nisswa — which is about 16 miles from Brainerd — could be included on the morning and noon school bus runs to the school.

This change eliminated the need to use a freight truck to make the deliveries three times per week. It saved the district nearly $6,000 and cut the environmental impact of about 120 truck trips to Nisswa per year.

9. Make good use of bus capacity.The transportation department at Litchfield Elementary School District #79 monitors the student counts on each school bus route once per week. 

The department develops a ridership average for each school based on actual vs. assigned ridership.

“[We] use these numbers to overload our assigned count in an attempt to maintain full buses,” Walker says. “We’ve found that we’ve been able to cut as many as four routes from a school using this method.”

  • Brewster Central School District developed a refurbishment plan to extend bus life to about 18 years.
    Brewster Central School District developed a refurbishment plan to extend bus life to about 18 years.

10. Refurbish buses to extend life. About five years ago, Brewster (N.Y.) Central School District decided to refurbish buses to increase their life cycle. A new replacement plan was developed based on running buses for 18 years (although some make it to 20 years) and buying five to six new buses per year. The district has a fleet of 106 buses.

Jack Coxen, Brewster’s supervisor of transportation, shares details on the plan:

•    The body refurbishment schedule calls for one or two buses per month in a body shop.
•    The budget for refurbishment is estimated at $25,000 to $40,000 per year.
•    A key consideration in refurbishment is whether the repair will give the district three to five more years with the bus.
•    In addition to additional years, the goal is to get 350,000 to 400,000 more miles with the bus.
•    All of the body work is subject to New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) inspections.
•    The district focuses on maintaining a DOT inspection rating of over 90%. Coxen notes that Brewster’s success rate has increased in the past five years. Its five-year average is 92.7%, and its latest available score, for the 2012-13 school year, was 94.3%.

“Finding a body shop that can deal with buses and the demands of the safety standards and tolerances of New York State is a challenge,” Coxen notes. “We use our International [IC Bus] and Blue Bird dealers and a couple of local shops we have cultivated for this task.”

11. Optimize bell times, bus tiers. Many school districts have tapped into transportation efficiencies by adjusting school bell schedules.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools operates on a four-tier bell schedule, which allows the transportation department to use the same buses for four or more routes.

“While this was an ambitious undertaking, it has proven to be one of the major components of the efficiency rating for our division,” Pace says. “Also, it is important to have flexibility in determining the operating hours of any new programs that are approved for service. If these programs can operate during off-use times, existing resources can be used, thereby avoiding additional capital outlay and personnel costs.”

Nancy Farinella, transportation supervisor at Green Brook (N.J.) Township Public Schools, advises working with administrators to adjust bell times in order to tier routes more efficiently. Another routing efficiency idea that Farinella recommends is gathering students in one location and adding shuttles or feeder routes.

Litchfield Elementary School District #79 adjusted its bell times two years ago to improve customer service and reduce the number of buses needed each day.

“Prior to adjusting our times, we had 38 general-ed and 18 special-needs routes,” Walker says. “By adjusting our bell times, we were able to reduce to 27 general-ed routes and 17 special-needs routes, while our district is growing drastically.”

  • The transportation department at Litchfield Elementary School District #79 has found that providing pertinent info on its web page has reduced the number of incoming questions.
    The transportation department at Litchfield Elementary School District #79 has found that providing pertinent info on its web page has reduced the number of incoming questions.
    12. Use web to cut down on calls. An effective transportation website can boost efficiency by getting information to the public while reducing the volume of incoming phone calls and e-mails. That has been the case at Litchfield Elementary School District #79.


The web page for the district’s transportation department includes such pertinent material as safety data, student discipline information, bus assignments, the student transporter training process and a link to a bus route finder.  

“We’ve found this to be a huge help in reducing the number of questions we receive,” Walker says.

Walker adds that in previous districts he worked for, he has implemented an Internet-based field trip request program, which also lightened the workload of transportation office staff members. The system went like this: teacher enters trip, principal approves it, transportation department schedules it.

“Having 100 teachers enter their own field trip requests saves plenty of time over one transportation person entering 100 field trips,” Walker says.

13. Go paperless.
School transportation departments generate a lot of paper: personnel files, route sheets, training documents, Medicaid information, route bids, payroll forms, field and athletic trips, etc. At Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools, the transportation department has embarked on a mission to go paperless.

  • As part of the Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools transportation department’s project to go paperless, retired staff members work part time to scan documents into a cloud.
    As part of the Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools transportation department’s project to go paperless, retired staff members work part time to scan documents into a cloud.

“It’s not a difficult process, but a very time consuming one,” says Ron Latko, who retired as the district’s director of transportation at the end of the 2013-14 school year and now works as a school transportation consultant.

The bulk of the work is scanning. Four retired district staff members make up the scanning team, working part time. The department purchased 2 terabytes of cloud space and special scanners that can scan into the cloud.

“The system automatically makes a backup, so we have no worries regarding possible loss of information,” Latko says. “As each type of document is scanned, we of course verify that the information is really there.”

Once a specific type of document — e.g., personnel files — has all been scanned, future information is placed directly into the cloud as it is generated. Different job positions have levels of access to the information in the cloud based on need.

Under Arizona’s archives storage requirement, many types of documents have to be saved for a specific number of years — some as few as two, some as long as 30. But when the documents are scanned into the cloud, Mesa can shred the paper copies and still meet the archive requirements.

“Once everything is scanned and maintained as our new mode of operation, the distribution and access of information will be timeless,” Latko says. “We will save on paper, printers and, most importantly, time.”

14. Eliminate unneeded bus use, idling. Pace recommends establishing policies that prohibit idling and personal use of buses. At Virginia Beach City Public Schools, these mandates are monitored closely (GPS helps with this, as noted earlier), and corrective action is taken with drivers who violate them.

“The reduction in wasted fuel costs is significant, given we have 650 school buses on the road each day,” Pace says.

  • Nicole Portee, executive director of transportation at Denver Public Schools, and her staff have worked hard to educate school administrators about transportation and to get their buy-in.
    Nicole Portee, executive director of transportation at Denver Public Schools, and her staff have worked hard to educate school administrators about transportation and to get their buy-in.
    15. Get administrators in your corner. In order to carry out some efficiency-related initiatives, it may be essential to educate district and school leaders on the transportation system and what will enable it to run cost-effectively.


As Pace puts it, “The decision makers in the school system — upper administration, school board — must at least philosophically accept the recommendations of the transportation leadership” regarding efficiency goals.

At Denver Public Schools, the transportation department has worked hard to educate school administrators about transportation and to get their buy-in.

As an example, the district has allowed schools to submit a request to change their bell times. Nicole Portee, executive director of transportation, says this provides an opportunity to analyze data and look at the optimization of routes, and it enables schools to better understand transportation timelines.

“We work with the schools to determine whether we can support their [requested] times and what they are trying to accomplish. It could be that we go back and negotiate,” Portee says. “It has definitely allowed schools to become very sensitive to the transportation process and the work we have to do. … And then on our end, it has allowed us to optimize — to save money in the sense of building a product that fits within the scope of what’s available with our assets and staffing.”

Related Topics: efficiency

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
Comments ( 1 )
  • James Brotz

     | about 3 years ago

    One Huge way to Improve Safety , Fuel Efficiency, and Reduce Maintenance Costs and TIME is an ON BOARD TIRE INFLATION SYSTEM ! Like the SUPER-AIR OBTIS , Monitor Tire Pressure on the Go and get an Alarm incase of puncture, then a simple opening of the Valve on the ControlUnit and Air is pumped to the Tire (on the GO ) ti allow Safe Opperation to a spot to Check ! This will End the Tragedys we Have seen in rescent Years of Deaths due to Blown tires in School Buses and Coaches

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