We often describe school bus drivers as the backbone of the pupil transportation industry. Certainly, in sheer numbers, they are the dominant force. And, because of their daily contact with the public, they no doubt have the greatest influence on the industry’s image. But they are not the only critical link in a successful transportation program. Behind every great corps of bus drivers is a great maintenance program. Even the best drivers can’t get from point A to point B safely and punctually unless their buses are kept in top working order. That’s no simple task, either. School bus maintenance programs rely on well-trained mechanics, skilled supervisors, properly outfitted garages and increasingly complex electronic diagnostic tools to get the job done with a minimum of drama and maximum of cost efficiency. Top shops merit recognition
That’s why we’ve chosen to recognize 10 exemplary school bus maintenance programs in North America. We selected the school districts and contractors based on several criteria, including training, preventive maintenance, efficiency, safety, innovation, inspection records and morale. Size was not a factor in our screening process. The largest operation, San Diego Unified School District, maintains more than 500 buses, while the smallest, Fort Dodge (Iowa) Community School District, takes care of fewer than 50 buses. As you might expect, each maintenance program profiled in this issue boasts a highly capable staff — with many technicians certified by ASE — and a clean, well-organized garage. One of the common threads among this year’s selections is an accent on training and education. In fact, at the best operations, mechanics are hungry for training. Without a constant emphasis on improvement of skill sets and knowledge, a maintenance program will grow stagnant very quickly. Training offered by vendors and local colleges can help to keep the staff up to speed on the latest chassis, engine and body enhancements. Attendance of state association meetings, especially those that emphasize garage strategies, should be routine, but budget shortfalls are causing some mechanics to miss these important gatherings. School districts and contractors that don’t send as many people as they can to these meetings are realizing a false economy. The knowledge gained at these meetings more then compensates for their cost. Another common thread among our 10 selections is a solid working relationship between the maintenance staff and the bus drivers. Mutual respect is what binds these groups. If that is missing, then communication will be compromised, as will the effective resolution of steering, brake and other on-the-road problems that drivers need to accurately and immediately convey to the maintenance staff. Finally, exemplary maintenance programs have exemplary leadership, whether it’s provided by the transportation supervisor, a shop foreman or a lead mechanic. The best leaders understand that commitment is key at all levels. Having technical knowledge is essential, but learning how to make people commit to their responsibilities on a day-to-day basis is just as important. Just to avoid confusion
This article should not be confused with our “Great Fleets Across America” competition, which recognizes entire transportation operations, one from each state. By the way, if you would like to submit a nomination for our “Great Fleets” competition, you can fill out our online form, which is linked to the front page of our Website, www.schoolbusfleet.com. Judging from the enthusiasm generated by last year’s competition, the 2002 “Great Fleets” event is sure to draw an impressive array of entries. I hope to see yours among them.