SBF: Have we reached a point at which contractors will have to offer the same benefits that most school districts do?
Settle: I think we have to recognize that school districts are facing the same problems that contractors are in recruiting and retaining drivers. This is not a contractor issue. This is an issue of a strong economy. Trying to attract people to a split-shift job is very difficult.
Palmer: We've done a few things here that have made a difference. Before, we pretty much paid drivers a flat wage; now, we increase their wages based on how many years they've been with us. We've also accelerated the training program to get them licensed more quickly. We've been able to cut down the time it takes for the criminal background checks. People don't want to wait six weeks to start a job. It's pretty simple, but it works.
SBF: Tied into this problem of recruiting and retaining drivers is the growing concern about discipline aboard school buses. What have you done to deal with this particular problem?
Gallagher: We believe that our program is as effective as our relationship with our school principals and superintendents. We've made a real effort to get our managers to develop strong ties with the principal of the receiving school and the superintendent. Where those relationships are strong, our student discipline problems have decreased. Our job is to get the students to school safely and on time, but it really is the responsibility of the principals to deal with the discipline problems.
Settle: We've taken a collaborative approach, not only with just the building administrators but also with the parents. Ultimately, the responsibility for the children and the children's behavior rests with the parents and the exposure they receive at home. Student discipline is not a building administrator problem; it's not a parent problem; it's not a bus driver problem; it's a safety problem. We try to approach it from a safety aspect with these three constituents: the drivers, the administrators and the parents. We ask them to come together and help us deal more effectively with the discipline problems.
Palmer: In Minnesota they changed the law a few years ago where they turned over the discipline to the principal and they made it a privilege, not a right, to ride the bus. Boy, that's helped.
SBF: Another issue that I'd like to discuss is safety. Many states now mandate crossing arms on school buses and that trend will probably continue. What is your position on the mandatory addition of safety equipment on school buses?
Settle: We retrofitted our entire fleet with crossing arms last year. We see a whole lot of merit in them. I suspect that before long that will become a standard piece of equipment on school buses. From a Laidlaw perspective, we're pretty proud that we're one of the first major operators to retrofit our fleet and raise the bar for everybody else.
Gallagher: We are studying the impact of adding crossing gates. We have them on buses in some of our operations. We haven't decided to retrofit them, but anything new that we bring in has them. We're spending a lot of time on discussions about seat belts. We're leaning toward putting lap belts in all of our new equipment. We would still be interested in the shoulder belts, which we think would increase safety but obviously substantially limit the capacity of the buses. I think as an industry we have fought with the sabre being compartmentalization, and I think recent accidents have shown that there are pluses and minuses on both sides of the ledger here. Our company is taking an aggressive point of view that we're going to start putting them in and certainly a lot of customers have been asking us if we would make it standard operating equipment. I think the customers are going to drive the issue, more so than what the industry wants to do.
Settle: So is that a customer initiative with the seat belts? Our stance has been: If they're helpful, they're helpful; if they're not, they're not. There's a lot of conflicting reports out there. If it's a beneficial device, then it should be available to all children or as many as physically possible based on the design of the school bus and those sorts of issues.