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October 01, 1999  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Great Fleets Across America, Part 1

A state-by-state compilation of school bus fleets that merit recognition for excellence.

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The essential elements of a top-notch school transportation program include devotion to safety, maintenance and training. We’ve chosen 50 operations from around the country that share these qualities. This inaugural “Great Fleets Across America” section is a celebration of excellence. The fleets recognized in this section are among the best in their respective states. They were selected based on their overall effectiveness in providing safe and efficient school transportation. Some excelled in the area of driver training, while others were strongest in vehicle maintenance. The most common attribute was a positive outlook and a family-like atmosphere for drivers and other staff members. The majority of operations mentioned problems with the driver shortage. There were no lines drawn between public and private fleets. Nor was size of fleet a consideration. We focused on quality rather than quantity, though some large fleets — including Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md., Cobb County Public Schools in Marietta, Ga., and Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev. — made the list. “Great Fleet” selections were not made using any specific formula or numerical rating system. Creating such a system would be difficult and would not have removed subjectivity from the process. Instead, we relied on recommendations from state directors of pupil transportation, state pupil transportation and contractor associations and members of our Editorial Advisory Board. We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who contributed to the selection process. The profiles were written by staff editors Steve Hirano and Sandra Matke as well as freelance writers Greta Palmer, Mary O’Halloran and George Furukawa.

Enterprise City Schools
Enterprise, Ala.

The transportation department at Enterprise City Schools takes pride in the way its buses look and run. Transporting 4,125 students daily on 55 buses, the district does all of its own maintenance in a new, state-of-the-art bus shop with eight open bays. In their previous shop, Enterprise mechanics could work on only two buses at a time. Now they can service nine. The new shop, which opened in January, boasts a machine shop, tire-changing room, upholstery room, wash rack and paint booth. Ron White, transportation supervisor, points out that a monthly maintenance program has been carried out consistently and that his department has received perfect state inspections for the past few years, without the benefit of the new shop. “We care about the way things run and don’t rely on the building to do it,” says White. Still, he admits that they are very happy with their new shop, which was funded by local taxes. The department’s annual operating budget is $1.2 million. Like many school districts, Enterprise is turning to video surveillance on its buses. White uses these videos to train drivers to be aware of what students are doing behind their backs. “All of our drivers are good,” says White. “We just try to make them better by opening their eyes.” White, who also plans to provide CPR and first aid training to all his drivers, believes strongly in preventive maintenance as a means of ensuring safety. Bob Tomberlin, director of operations, feels that the district is lucky to have White, a retired military fleet director who takes pride in his work. “An operation isn’t any better than the people running it,” Tomberlin says. “Good people make a good operation.”

North Slope Borough School District
Barrow, Alaska

Imagine driving a school bus on a day as dark as night, snow blowing across the hood and the temperature at 45 degrees below zero. These are common conditions faced each winter by the drivers of the North Slope Borough School District, which includes Barrow and four villages and covers approximately 88,000 square miles of northern Alaskan territory. “The busing up here is done differently,” says Bob Wheelon, transportation manager for the district of 800 bus-riding students. Differently is an understatement. For starters, school is almost never canceled due to weather. Wheelon may revise routes for weather-related road closures, but service continues nonetheless. In addition, the harsh climate necessitates door-to-door service — for all students. “To deal with the extreme cold, we actually stop in front of every kid’s house,” Wheelon says. The adverse weather affects more than routing and scheduling. The buses themselves are vulnerable to the harsh conditions and require special protection. When not in use, the buses are stored indoors. They’re equipped with an average of five heaters to keep the engine, battery and other vital parts functioning and are plugged into electric outlets whenever parked outdoors to prevent freezing of fluids. The district mechanic maintains all 13 of the district’s buses. Ten of the buses are in Barrow. The other three are in villages without connecting roads, forcing the mechanic to fly in and out whenever service is required. Despite the difficulty, North Slope Borough School District keeps its vehicles in prime condition, says Joe Precourt, state director of transportation for the Department of Education. In light of the harsh conditions they face each day, he considers this a “commitment to provide the highest level of safety for the children.”

Kyrene School District #28
Tempe, Ariz.

The desert heat hasn’t blistered Kyrene School District’s desire to stay ahead of the curve in driver training, maintenance and equipment. The district, located about 15 miles southeast of Phoenix, operates approximately 115 buses to transport 9,000 children to 24 elementary and middle schools on a $3 million operating budget. In the past few years, the district’s student population has grown rapidly, putting a squeeze on ancillary services like transportation. But the transportation center hasn’t budged on its demands for well-trained drivers and well-maintained buses. Chuck Lee, who supervises driver training, says the district provides a minimum of 30 hours of behind-the-wheel training for new drivers, even though the state mandates only 20. Classroom instruction also goes beyond state requirements, with the district providing 171D2 hours compared to the state-required 14. We just feel its better to go beyond the minimum, Lee says. It protects the district and the kids at the same time.” Fleet maintenance is one of Kyrene’s strengths, and it shows in the district’s exemplary inspection results, which state officials say are among the best. Paul Cochran, fleet maintenance supervisor, credits a rigorous 110-step summer inspection of each vehicle. The district’s three mechanics are all ASE-certified as Master Technicians. Transportation Director Chuck Keane, who recently left the same position at Richland School District in Washington, is trying to improve the drivers’ work environment. To encourage excellent performance, Keane has suggested that drivers who are accident-free at the end of the school year receive a three-day vacation weekend. Keane also has taken the initiative to bolster the safety specs on new school buses. Each of them will be equipped with dual LED stop arms, LED taillights, brake lights and turn signals and supplementary retroreflective tape. In addition, state-of-the-art video cameras will be placed on all buses to help drivers with student management. Keane’s also working on improving the drivers’ bottom line. “His goal is to make them the highest-paid drivers in the valley,” Lee says. “And that’s what he has been telling them from Day One.”

Conway School District
Conway, Ark.

As the population of Conway expands faster than any other county in Arkansas, the transportation department at Conway School District rises to the occasion. “Maintaining a quality transportation program while we go through a period of rapid growth has been quite a challenge,” says Eddie Hawkins, assistant superintendent, whose small district 30 miles from Little Rock has added six regular routes and 10 double routes in the past 10 years. “A very critical issue has been how to staff those routes,” says Hawkins. Four years ago he decided to give drivers a significant increase in pay to motivate interest in driving. The result was that teachers, custodians and other district employees began taking on routes to supplement their income. Not only did this control the driver shortage problem, but it had other benefits as well. “Our discipline on the buses has improved greatly by being able to get more teachers and staff members driving our buses,” says Hawkins. “Because of their ties to the school, they’re more familiar with the children and have been a great force for us in student management.” At the same time, Hawkins pulled together a committee of parents, administrators and bus drivers for a series of meetings on how to establish and enforce rules on the bus. They came up with a standard policy using five main rules, by which all students, elementary through high school, must abide. A rule sheet is sent home the first day of school and parents must sign and return the sheet by week two or their children will no longer be allowed to ride the bus. “We insist that the parents cooperate with us,” says Hawkins, who calls the 3-year-old program a success.

Kern County Superintendent of Schools
Bakersfield, Calif.

The Kern County Superintendent of Schools provides a spectrum of support services for 47 school districts spread over 8,000 square miles. On the transportation side, the county office provides busing of 1,100 special-needs students, fee-for-service maintenance of 600 to 800 public vehicles and school bus driver training. Many of Kern County’s school districts are so small that they don’t have the resources to operate a school bus program without support from the county office, says Don Fowler, division administrator of transportation. “If they’re to survive, the only way they’re going to do it is to reap the benefits of the cooperative services that we provide,” he says. To that end, the county office provides contract-based special-needs transportation with a fleet of 59 school buses and six passenger vehicles. The clients include seven school districts and a Head Start agency. Fowler says the operation is run on a $4.1 million budget, 45 percent of which is funded by the state. The remainder is passed on to the school districts in the form of excess cost. Fowler takes pride in the quality of his special-needs drivers. “A few of our drivers have made it to 18 years without a preventable accident,” he says. In addition, two of them were state roadeo champions. The drivers are given uniforms to wear so the public and students can easily identify them. Fowler says many of Kern County’s school districts have the same policy. “It’s a worthwhile investment,” he says. Maintenance of school buses operated by the county as well as those who desire a fee-for-service arrangement is performed in a 36,000-square-foot service center that has 16 service bays and 10 hoists, a tire room, a machine shop, a welding shop and a glass and upholstery shop. In addition to school districts, the client list includes the sheriff’s department, the Army National Guard and the YMCA. Fowler’s staff includes three full-time driver trainers. “A small district has a hard time affording a certified trainer,” he explains. Services provided by the trainers includes original and renewal classes for driver instruction, behind-the-wheel training and evacuation and safe riding practices training.

Aurora Public Schools
Aurora, Colo.

The transportation department at Aurora Public Schools puts a premium on staff input to help it retain an innovative edge. To foster open communication, Transportation Director Augie Campbell formed a Building Council, an advisory group of drivers and other staff members. The council addresses problems, creates solutions and devises new strategies for the department, which transports 8,700 students to and from 42 schools. “After 28 years in the position, I felt like I was getting out of touch with the real people — the drivers and mechanics,” explains Campbell, whose drivers currently total 91 and mechanics seven. “The Building Council lets me know what’s really happening and gives me a whole new area of thought.” As a result of this collaboration, several unconventional programs have been developed. Among these is the addition of a silent alarm system to the entire fleet. Responding to increased school violence, the district retrofitted all 107 yellow buses with special dual-lamp blue lights, which are attached below the driver’s window and can be used to alert other drivers and police of any hostage or weapons situations. The transportation system, with a $4.1 million operations budget, also initiated a program in cooperation with seven other school districts in the state to help reduce the number of “blow-bys,” or drivers who illegally pass stopped school buses. For nine months the participating districts will track and evaluate the effectiveness of different light combinations designed to signal motorists to stop for the school bus.

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