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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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F.E. Smyth & Son and Smyth Bus Co.
Enfield, Conn.

Two companies owned by the same family — F.E. Smyth & Son and Smyth Bus Co. — provide quality service with a strong emphasis on safety. With 130 yellow buses servicing 19 schools in three districts — Enfield, Windsor Locks and East Windsor — the Smyth companies have achieved the highest ratings for state vehicle inspections for the past four years. Dick Smyth credits his 127-person staff for the company’s clean safety records and impeccable service. “The key is to hire the best people around,” Smyth says of his mechanics and drivers, 25 of whom are related to one another. He also reveals a few of his strategies for maintaining excellent safety records: meticulous pre-trip inspections, replacing 10 percent of his buses each year and investing in high-quality engines. Robin Leeds, executive director of the Connecticut School Transportation Association (COSTA) for 17 years, says that the Smyth family business has earned a solid reputation among all carriers in the state — both public and private — because of a strong code of ethics. “Two years ago Dick gave up two contracts because he felt the load was too large to maintain control,” says Leeds. “When I asked him why he didn’t renegotiate the contracts and then sell them to another operation, he said that he could not have guaranteed the kind of service another carrier would have provided.” Smyth, whose father was one of the founders of COSTA, explains his commitment to his clients stems from the product being delivered. “Every day we need to remember that we are transporting the world’s most precious cargo. We take that very seriously.” Windsor Locks Transportation Director Scott Burckbuchler calls Smyth a rarity in the business. “I usually don’t gush over a vendor, but Smyth is awesome,” he says. “Whenever you have a situation that needs a solution, you phone Dick directly and he handles it. You don’t have to speak to a computer or to a secretary. You wouldn’t get that kind of personal attention and care from the bigger companies.”

Hilton Bus Services
Wyoming, Delaware

You can take the man out of a transportation system, but you can’t take a transportation system out of the man — so reads the story of David Hilton, a former school transportation supervisor and now owner/operator of Hilton Bus Services in Wyoming, Delaware. Hilton brings to his company, formed in 1996 with the purchase of E&M Bus System, an insight and management style developed while working in the local education system for more than 35 years. The company recently purchased Cool’s Bus Service, adding 28 new routes and 32 additional buses. Hilton now owns 57 buses and services two districts and 1,500 students daily. It logs an average 6,000 miles per day. Hilton’s son David (who prefers “The Second,” rather than “Jr.”) says the family business “puts in enough miles to go to Salt Lake City and back each day.” Hilton II describes Hilton I as “a stickler for rules and safety,” and says that his father’s background as both a teacher and a district supervisor is reflected in the company’s white-glove performance standards. “My father expects his drivers to do what he would do, nothing more nothing less,” say Hilton. “He comes from the Old School mentality, where if you’re not a safe driver you don’t drive here.” Both Hiltons monitor their drivers by conducting road inspections. During these covert inspections, they will check various driving requirements, including that drivers make their stops correctly, leave their warning lights flashing for the proper amount of time and wait until students are seated before leaving the curb. Hilton advocates open communication with the company’s 54 drivers and four mechanics. They have their own mailboxes for office news and route information. The appearance is indicative of the company’s high standards. Hilton pays a five-person crew to clean the inside of the buses from top to bottom each day. “We are all about safety when we are driving, and we want to look good when we are doing it,” says Hilton.

Pasco County Schools
Port Richey, Fla.

Maintaining a safety cushion around 27,000 children is difficult under normal conditions. With the ongoing — and worsening — driver shortage, Pasco County Schools is struggling to meet the challenge of safe and timely transportation. Transportation Director Michael Park says the district, located about 40 miles north of Tampa, puts 275 route buses on the road each day to deliver children to and from 45 school sites. He started the school year with a deficit of 36 drivers. “We just can’t find the people,” he laments. “Everywhere you go around here you see ‘Help Wanted’ signs.” The problem, Park says, is that many of the prospects who go through his school system’s driver training immediately leave after obtaining their CDLs. Of course, many of them never intended to drive a school bus and only used that ploy to get their CDL so they can drive for another organization or company. To retain the drivers who are willing to pilot a school bus, the district offers a $100-per-quarter bonus for perfect attendance. If the driver has perfect attendance for the full year, he receives an additional $200. The bonuses are nice, but Park believes that drivers are sorely underpaid. “They’re worth 10 times what they’re paid,” he says. “They’re the key to everything.” Upping the ante, the district has begun to guarantee drivers six hours per day, up from 41D2 hours. With the shortage, however, drivers generally can do better than six hours. Everybody can get 40 hours per week if they want to, Park says. On a more positive note, the district has four repair facilities. The state requires 20-day inspections, which is no problem at Pasco. “We firmly believe in preventive maintenance,” Park says. He is bringing online a new fleet maintenance software system, having outgrown the previous 18-year-old software system. To bolster its school bus safety program, Park applied for and received grant money for a Buster the Bus program combined with a puppet show for K-2 students across the district. A middle-school choir provides the musical support. “It’s quite entertaining for the younger children,” Park says.

Cobb County Public Schools
Marietta, Ga.

Giving drivers a voice in the operation is difficult when you’re running 795 school buses on regular routes each day to transport 69,000 students — but Cobb County Public Schools does its best. “We give all of our employees the chance to provide input,” says Carroll Pitts, executive director of transportation. Drivers, in particular, are invited to sit on committees that do everything from plan the annual roadeo to set up field-trip rules and procedures. In addition, Pitts says drivers of new vehicles can sit on the school bus specifications committee. “We ask them to talk about what’s wrong with their buses,” he says. “We keep trying to improve on the bus for their benefit, because they’re the ones who have to drive it for six to eight hours per day.” Monthly, Pitts sits down with 32 field coordinators, who represent all of the drivers. “We teach and tell them everything we’re doing in transportation, including any plans that we have. This way, they can let us know if they think it’s a good plan, a bad plan or whatever.” The need for effective communication is especially critical because of the continued growth of the district, a northern suburb of Atlanta. Pitts says he’s added an average of 25 to 30 buses to the fleet for each of the past five years. All told, the district has 950 buses. They’re maintained by a crew of 52 mechanics and supervisors at four terminals. Since 1991, the district has been working on a 10-year fleet replacement cycle. For the past two years, rear-engine transit-style buses have been the vehicles of choice. Pitts believes these buses are quieter and provide better visibility. “The drivers like that,” Pitts says. Because the district transports so many students, Pitts says the push for safety is constant. In addition to bringing the Buster the Bus program to all K-3 students, the department is working with the PTA to encourage parents of young students to be present at the bus stops for pickups and drop-offs. “We’re always looking for something that will improve safety,” he says.

Gomes School Bus Service Ltd.
Kaneohe, Hawaii

Unlike its mainland counterparts, Hawaii has only one public school district. That limits the options of school bus contractors, but hasn’t deterred Gomes School Bus Service. The company serves more than 20 public schools and several private schools, transporting 2,500 students daily with 89 yellow buses and 120 employees. It also provides island-wide charter service. Lee Gomes is the manager of the company, which was started in 1959 by her late father-in-law, Edward Gomes. David, her husband, is president, owner and head mechanic. Their son, Bryan, is a mechanic. David’s brother, Cheyenne, is also a mechanic. With so many family members in the fold, it’s not surprising that a strong family atmosphere permeates the operation and extends all the way to the passengers. “We have good people working here, who really care about the kids,” says Lee Gomes. “They get so attached to the children. Our drivers must be dependable. It’s not an easy job, but it’s rewarding.” The company does not advertise for drivers. “Our drivers stay with us a long time,” Gomes says. “No one can stay at a job they’re not happy with, and produce good results. You have to walk through our door wanting to be a school bus driver, not wanting to just drive a bus. There’s a difference.” Experienced drivers who apply for positions with Gomes are not always as successful as ones trained by the company. “I can take a driver who has been driving for many years for other companies, and that driver still has to go through our training program,” says Gomes. “They have to be able to drive a school bus up to our standards, and if they can’t handle the bus, they’re not accepted.” “We do everything ourselves,” says David Gomes. “We not only service our buses, but we also service trucks. In Hawaii, you have to diversify to survive.” Staying competitive in such a small market requires strong commitment. “We polish our buses and try to do something extra to stay competitive,” he says. “We look at inspections as a way of helping us to better serve the children and their parents.”

St. Maries School District
St. Maries, Idaho

To access the bus shop at St. Maries School District you need to pass through a doorway that looks like the back of a school bus, complete with flashing red lights. Just one in a series of morale-boosters, the painted entrance creates a positive atmosphere in the shop and inspires Transportation Supervisor Cliff Mooney to call his current position one of the “most fun” jobs he has ever had. “It’s a pleasure every day to come in and work,” he says. Winner of the 1998-99 Idaho Pupil Transportation Supervisor of the Year award, Mooney believes in providing twice the amount of driver training required by the state. This includes hands-on practice in adjusting mirrors, installing chains and testing air brakes. “Everything that needs to be covered we try to cover way more than we have to,” he says. Good training has earned all 24 district drivers perfect driving records. Top-notch mechanics have followed suit and earned perfect inspection marks for the fleet’s 24 buses each year. “For a small operation, we’re just a first-class business,” says Mooney, who notes that recognition does not come easily to a small operation serving four schools in the Idaho mountains. But the location itself merits recognition. The terrain is hilly, with almost no flat land. Every route covers at least 10 miles of dirt road, and six months of the year all roads are covered in ice or snow. As Mooney points out, it takes good drivers to master that territory. “We’ve got probably the best crew in the state,” he says. “I’d put them up against anybody.”

Township High School District No. 211
Palatine, Ill.

What’s most striking about this school district operation in Palatine, a suburban community about 35 miles northwest of Chicago, is the absence of a driver shortage. “I’ve never advertised for a driver,” says Gary Marx, who’s been the transportation director since 1982. Instead, he relies on referrals from existing drivers to fill vacancies. Not that there are many vacancies to fill. Marx says the driver turnover rate is approximately 5 percent. “That’s because this is a good place to work,” Marx says. “People generally just don’t leave here.” Marx says drivers tend to be overlooked by school districts, and he takes great pains to ensure that doesn’t happen in Palatine. To that end, he brings in district representatives to provide drivers with information on the state pension plan, medical insurance and liability. “Our training is not just about how to use the stop arms,” he says. That’s not to say, however, that drivers don’t receive a good dose of training, especially those who’ve had an at-fault accident. These drivers are retrained, reevaluated and may be required to go through the National Safety Council’s Defensive Driving Course. “What we’re trying to do is stop the careless accidents,” he says. Since this policy was set up four or five years ago, the accident rate has been cut in half, Marx says. The district operates 125 daily route buses and 140 buses overall. Maintenance is performed by eight mechanics — who are all ASE-certified Master Technicians — and two apprentices at two garages. Interest in ASE certification has mushroomed in the past several years and has become a “rallying point” for the mechanics, Marx says. But mechanics aren’t the only ones interested in certification. The district’s driver instructor and driver supervisor have earned NAPT (National Association for Pupil Transportation) certification. “It was a matter of personal pride,” says Marx, who is an NAPT-certified transportation director. “It’s pressure they put on themselves, in a positive way.”

Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp.
Evansville, Ind.

In 1987, Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corp. responded to impending oil embargoes and increasingly long gasoline lines by taking an aggressive approach. The district invested $245,000 in a compressed natural gas (CNG) system and ended up saving a bundle of money in the long run. Originally, 90 buses were converted to CNG, with special kits and tanks installed on the vehicles. The district purchased 62 slow-fill stations, which are used to fill tanks slowly overnight, and one fast-fill pump, for immediate fuelings. The clean-burning fuel costs a third of the price of regular gasoline. The district recouped its investment in five years. Now 143 of its 264 yellow buses have been converted to CNG, and the district has a new $700,000 fueling station, which was partially funded by Southern Indiana Gas & Electric Co. Charles Johnson, transportation director, says that Evansville-Vanderburgh’s 12 mechanics have been trained to service both types of vehicles, and considers the CNG buses to be low-maintenance vehicles. Johnson adds that many of his 264 drivers prefer the alternative-fuel school buses because they seem to run better than the regular vehicles. A police officer for 27 years, Johnson runs a tight ship at Evansville-Vanderburgh. He applies the same aggressive approach to transporting the 17,500 students from the district’s 35 schools as he did when overhauling the fleet’s fueling system. “As a police officer, I worked for 25 years in the juvenile division,” says Johnson. “I dealt with all types of children and all of their problems. Knowing how to deal with children and their parents is a plus in this job.”

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