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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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Fort Dodge Community School District
Fort Dodge, Iowa

Chris Darling is a big believer in computerization. When he took over as transportation director at Fort Dodge Community School District about eight years ago, he brought his high-tech intentions with him. In his second year, he implemented a computerized routing system but cautiously backed it up with the old manual system. “I didn’t want to have it fail,” he says. After that inaugural year, he discarded the manual system and has relied solely on the computer for the past six years. “We don’t do anything by hand,” he says. Currently, the fleet has 46 buses handling 27 regular routes, six special-needs routes and four or five other alternative-learning routes. Approximately 2,000 children are transported on an operating budget of $775,000. The district, a mix of “town and country” that spans 165 square miles, is located about 100 miles north of Des Moines. Darling says the computerized system has improved transportation on several fronts. First, it cut the number of routes by five by optimizing efficiency. The computer also helped to the reduce the number of pick-ups and drop-offs that required a child to cross the street by 45 percent. “That was a real improvement to student safety,” Darling says. After the district created a hub-style routing system with a transfer point for 600 students, the computer became even more important. “When a parent calls in to register a child, we go right to the computer and input their address,” Darling explains. “The computer will show exactly where they live, assign them a bus and it will also tell them the transfer bus. We amaze people with how quickly we can provide information.” If driver recruitment ran as smoothly as its computers, the transportation department would be in great shape. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. “The driver shortage is one of our biggest problems,” Darling says. He adds, however, that people who take up the challenge are well prepared. In addition to satisfying all of Iowa’s pre-service training requirements, new drivers must also go through a 60-trip training program with other drivers. “They may drive by themselves at times, but they don’t leave town,” he says. “By the time they complete 60 trips, they’re bus drivers.”

Shawnee Heights Unified School District #450
Tecumseh, Kan.

The transportation department at Shawnee Heights Unified School District gives credence to the saying, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” The district has a fleet of 56 buses for 27 regular routes and five special-needs routes. The annual operating budget is $1 million. Compared to heavyweight fleets in large urban areas, it’s more of a VW bug than a Cadillac. “We may be small, but we’re very, very good,” says Bob Salmon, who oversees transportation as well as buildings and grounds. His lack of modesty is understandable. The district’s drivers regularly distinguish themselves in state and national roadeos. “Our drivers are very positive about what they do,” he says. “They continue to prove that by placing extremely high in roadeos. I take a great deal of pride in their accomplishments.” Salmon says the department also has an excellent safety and training record. As an example, he says that in the six years that he’s been with the district, none of his driver applicants has ever failed to pass the CDL exams — written and behind-the-wheel — on the first try. “The license examiners tell us, ‘We never have to worry about those Shawnee Heights people because they know what they’re doing,’” he says. The department also takes pride in its advocacy. “We’re very vocal in trying to get legislation changed,” Salmon says. “We tend to make a little more noise than most districts.” The current hot-button issue is illegal pass-bys of school buses. The district has voiced its concerns to the state highway patrol and the Kansas State Pupil Transportation Association. “This is becoming one of the biggest issues in school transportation today,” he says. Salmon also takes pride in the district’s maintenance staff. In the past six years, not a single school bus has been flagged for a major — or minor — violation during state inspections. “It’s such an astounding feat that two years ago the superintendent of the highway patrol came out here to witness the inspections,” he says.

Hardin County School District
Elizabethtown, Ky.

In Hardin County, quality school transportation begins with clean, well-maintained buses. “We want our buses to be noticed as the cleanest buses in Kentucky,” says Transportation Director Bobby Sheroan, who requires all 186 buses to be inspected every 20 days. Drivers whose buses rate in the top 25 percent over the course of the school year receive certificates for their efforts. Clean buses deter vandalism, according to Sheroan. Not only are students less likely to damage a bus that is in good condition, but drivers can more easily pinpoint the perpetrator of damage when a bus is well maintained. “Complete restitution is expected of parents,” says Sheroan of damage caused by students. The district firmly believes in “being there [for drivers], listening to them and standing up for them.” In the past, Sheroan says, drivers were quitting for lack of administrative support. He has improved conditions for drivers by establishing a firm student discipline plan, ensuring quality maintenance services by ASE-certified mechanics and providing adequate staffing. The staff includes not only 175 regular-route drivers, but also 20 alternate drivers who receive full pay and benefits. Rather than hiring substitute drivers who Sheroan feels will use the position as a “stepping stone” until they get another job, he hires full-time alternates to replace absent drivers. When not driving, alternates put in their hours doing route reviews, riding with other drivers to learn routes, assisting with discipline problems or acting as bus aides. On special-needs buses, Sheroan employs two certified drivers, one to drive the bus and the other to act as an aide. He believes drivers are more in tune with the requirements of the children on a special-needs bus than are regular bus monitors. “In light of the fragile cargo we’re carrying,” says Sheroan, “it’s worth the small added cost of training two drivers for each special-needs bus.”

Jefferson Parish School Board
Metairie, La.

The school bus operation at Jefferson Parish School District, located adjacent to New Orleans, is different in some respects from the standard public or private fleets around the country. The 329 buses are owned by individual drivers who are considered employees of the school district. It’s an unusual system, but not without its benefits. Dale Boudreaux, director of regular-education transportation, says he has “friendly discussions” with colleagues at school districts with board-owned buses about who is likely to take better care of the bus. “We think it’s the owner rather than an employee,” he says. Meanwhile, the Jefferson Parish district’s safety record, according to its insurance carrier, is very good, Boudreaux says. While owner/operators may have a greater vested interest in taking care of their vehicles, it’s also much more expensive for them to enter the business. The difficulty these days, Boudreaux says, is finding people who want to buy a school bus. “The escalating cost of school buses is a problem,” he says. New drivers can’t buy a bus that’s more than 5 years old; existing drivers can buy buses that are up to 10 years old. An incentive plan was implemented in 1988-89 to replace the oldest buses in the fleet. Ten stipends are awarded each year to the 10 drivers with the oldest buses. They receive $1,000 per year for seven years. “Our fleet has improved dramatically since the school board approved the stipend program,” Boudreaux says. He was involved in the program’s inception, working alongside former transportation director George Horne. In 1988-89, about 76 percent of the buses were older than 10 years. Now, only 30 percent fall in that category. “We have definitely improved the makeup of our fleet,” he says. Further improvements are expected in the new year, when a sunset limit on school buses takes effect. The age restriction, which was passed by the state board of education, prohibits school buses older than 25 years from being operated. “This eventually will lead to the elimination of all pre-1977 buses in Louisiana,” says Boudreaux. “Amen.”

Maine School Administrative District #57
Waterboro, Maine

Maine’s District #57 has repeatedly taken proactive steps to improve its transportation system. It has implemented programs that maximize routing efficiency and increase public awareness for school bus safety. Operating on a $1.5 million annual budget, District #57 has been recognized for spearheading two successful programs — computerized routing and Operation Safe Stop. Computerized routing saves time for drivers with any fluctuations in their routes by pinpointing home addresses for each of the 3,600 students transported daily on a computerized map, and then configuring the most direct routes. The system is also used as a safety measure to provide door-to-door service for kindergarten students who are dropped off at noon. Operation Safe Stop is a partnership between District #57 and the local sheriff’s department. It was designed almost six years ago to reduce the number of vehicles passing stopped school buses. Bus drivers or anyone else witnessing an illegal passing can report the incident, along with pertinent information such as license plate number and vehicle description, to the police. The police will then contact the person in violation and warn him about future penalties for his actions. Connie Thimble, transportation director for District #57, says that because of Operation Safe Stop, motorists are more conscious of school buses, especially in school parking lots. Thimble is especially proud of the 55-member staff. She says they can run their operation “beautifully” in the most stressful of times, as was the case when Thimble missed the critical first few days of the new school year due to illness. “They all pitched in and helped out, and everything ran without a hitch.” Teamwork has enabled District #57 to own the team trophy in the state roadeo for the past 10 years, and also to place first, second and third in the regional competition last year. Rayette Hudon, executive director of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation, says she is continually impressed by the commitment of the district’s drivers. In addition to logging some of the highest mileage in the state, approximately 3,500 miles a day with fewer buses than other districts, many of the school district’s 48 drivers have taken defensive-driving classes and attend driver training workshops during the year.

Montgomery County Public Schools
Rockville, Md.

While neighboring districts publicly announced driver shortages and considered changing school hours to accommodate all of their bus-riding students, Montgomery County Public Schools attacked the problem at the source. They launched an aggressive recruitment campaign, which included posting flyers in store windows and on car windshields, placing ads in local newspapers and offering a highly competitive salary and benefits. “We felt like we could do a good job if we just had one simple element of our plan in place, and that would be to have a driver for every bus,” says Transportation Director John Matthews, who succeeded in his plan. In a district of 92,000 students, finding enough drivers to operate all 1,100 buses is no easy feat. And retaining them can be even more difficult. Aware that most new drivers cannot afford to go through the entire training process without payment, the department has started paying new drivers on a bus attendant’s salary scale during training. New hires work as an attendant and get accustomed to the school bus and its passengers when not involved in driver training exercises. In addition, Matthews says he and his staff have made the department a friendlier place to work. They have matched each new driver with a veteran driver who acts as a mentor. They have also set up welcome desks at each bus terminal, where new employees in the past have sometimes felt overwhelmed by the masses. Now, says Matthews, “there’s someone there to respond to the needs of new drivers.” Fully staffed, Matthews’ department is prepared to serve this suburb of Washington, D.C., by travelling a daily distance he calculates to be “three times around the equator plus 10,000 miles.”

Tewksbury Transit Inc.
Tewksbury, Mass.

Feeling the pinch of the driver shortage, Tewksbury Transit works diligently to service all nine schools in town. Manager Andy Lafortune says he would be thrilled to have 60 drivers, but functions now with only 52 by having office staff and mechanics double as drivers. Despite the added workload, routine maintenance is performed on all 43 buses using a revolving schedule in which six to seven buses are brought in every two to three days. Lafortune says this rigid system is necessary, considering the employee shortage. “We can’t afford to have a bus break down with someone having to be rescued when we don’t have the personnel to do that,” he explains. They also cannot afford to take their driver trainer away from his routes to train new hires. So they have constructed a duplicate of the CDL obstacle course in their yard, where the trainer can give lessons in between his runs. This set-up has the added benefit of enabling the manager to monitor the training process. “I can keep an eye on what’s going on and see who’s progressing and who needs a little more attention,” says Lafortune. Personal involvement in the operation is Lafortune’s style. Because Tewksbury Transit is a family-owned company, it is able to offer some privileges that other companies can’t, such as paid snow days and holidays and monthly cash bonuses for perfect attendance. Not only do these incentives help retain drivers, but they also help improve their motivation and performance.

Quincy Community Schools
Quincy, Mich.

Operating buses for two schools in the small village of Quincy, Mich., may not seem a difficult task. But when one of those institutions is among the largest elementary schools in the state, the situation gets a little more complicated. Doug Pawloski directs a staff of 18 in transporting approximately 900 students daily, while at the same time doing all of the routing and maintenance for the 24 buses himself. Nonetheless, his fleet has earned the highest rating on annual police inspections the past four years in a row. He attributes this not only to routine preventive maintenance, but also to annual vehicle rotation, in which two new buses replace two older buses in the fleet. “We’re getting rid of them before they get a lot of mileage, rust and wear and tear,” says Pawloski, who also points out that buses are purchased based on quality rather than on price. Operating these buses are mostly long-time drivers who Pawloski values highly. “It’s hard to get good people,” he says. “When you get them, you’ve got to take care of them and keep them.” He helps drivers out in any way he can, including performing immediate repairs on their vehicles and driving their routes for them, if necessary, to allow them time off. Not only does this help him retain good drivers, but it also improves company morale. “When I need help, in turn, they’re right there for me,” he says.

Hoglund Transportation
Monticello, Minn.

It’s not like the old days, laments Gordy Hoglund, president of Hoglund Transportation in Monticello, about 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul. The business has become more demanding and competitive. And the driver shortage hasn’t helped. “When you’re short of employees, there’s so much pressure on you,” Hoglund says. But Hoglund, who operates approximately 50 buses for school districts in Monticello and Elk River, has no plans to leave the business. “Even though there are places that are selling out, we’re committed to this,” he says. His father started the business shortly after the end of World War II. In 1986, Hoglund took over. He has witnessed changes in school transportation, but downplays the perceived degeneration of behavior among students. “About 98 or 99 percent of the kids are still good, like they always were,” he says. “But it’s the last 2 percent that everybody hears about.” Hoglund is proud of the quality of service his company provides. He takes special pride in his maintenance program, which has produced perfect and nearly perfect (a two-point deduction for a burned-out clearance light) state inspections over the past two years. He credits the talents of his five-person maintenance staff and the conscientiousness of his drivers in performing their pre- and post-trip inspections. “It comes down to having good people,” he says. Hoglund has made things easier for his mechanics by standardizing his equipment. He buys only International chassis with bodies by Thomas Built Buses. “Having standardized equipment helps us a lot,” he says. He acknowledges, however, that his chassis/body combination may be unavailable in the near future because of Freightliner Corp.’s acquisition of Thomas. Hoglund is assisted by two daughters and their husbands, who help to run the school bus operation as well as the family’s ambulance dealership and auto rental agency. “It’s nice,” Hoglund says, “because you have someone you can holler at.” Joking aside, Hoglund enjoys having family members playing key roles in the business. “I know I can depend on them,” he says.

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