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

Great Fleets Across America, Part 2

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Farmington Municipal School District
Farmington, N.M.

Sixteen years ago, Farmington became one of the first school districts in New Mexico to install cameras in its buses. Since then, officials have used surveillance videos to educate students on appropriate rider behavior, as well as to occasionally expose to parents their children’s on-board conduct. Transportation Director Bob Bevers says the cameras are “one of the most effective tools for discipline ever.” In addition to student management within the bus, drivers must somehow manage the environmental conditions without. Located in the Four Corners area of the state, Farmington Municipal School District encompasses mountains, forests, lakes and desert. Snowfall is heavy in the winter near the Colorado border. To increase safety in these occasionally harsh outdoor conditions, the district has installed strobe lights on the rooftop of each of its 79 buses. In poor visibility, strobe lights help drivers to see and to be seen by others. “I’d like to see them recommended minimum standard on all buses,” says Bevers. Beyond weather concerns, drivers must beware of other motorists — red-light runners in particular. Three years ago, Bevers started a red-light runner notification program. The program decreased the number of red-light runners by one half in its first year. Simple forms, completed by drivers, document motorist violations. These forms go to local police, who issue warning letters to motorists, explaining their violations and the fines that apply. When a particular area seems to be a problem, officers sit beside the bus stop and issue tickets on the spot. “I’d strongly advise any transportation department to work closely with local law enforcement agencies. It’s a very effective tool,” says Bever. When the program first started, Bevers received six to 10 notification forms a day from drivers. So far this year, the district is averaging only four a week.

Chappaqua Transportation Inc.
Chappaqua, N.Y.

Chappaqua Transportation Inc. has a simple abundance — of drivers. That’s an unusual circumstance, considering that school bus operators in the same vicinity are hard up for the same commodity. “We must be doing something right,” says Joan Corwin, president of the Chappaqua-based company. What she does is “treat the drivers with kid gloves.” For instance, drivers recently received a $50 back-to-work bonus. Later this year, they’ll likely find raffle tickets stapled to their time cards. Most importantly, they can count on recognition for a job well done. “It’s very important that they get praise,” says Corwin. “You just have to pump them up. I can’t tell you how important that is.” The average driver has been with Chappaqua for eight years. “I don’t really have any turnover,” Corwin says. She credits the company’s family atmosphere for the high retention rate. She uses the company newsletter to share personal information about staff members. “It’s not filled with industry stuff,” she says. “It holds them together because it’s about them as individuals.” Chappaqua employs about 110 people, including 95 drivers. The company’s currently working with seven school districts, including some who’ve beseeched Corwin to fill in the gaps while they try to recruit more drivers. “I’m doing the athletic runs for five different school districts because they haven’t got buses and drivers,” Corwin says. Corwin says the fleet has grown from 26 to 110 buses — about 50 full-size buses and 60 small buses — since she took over as manager in 1970. To remind her drivers of their awesome responsibility, she videotapes interviews with parents of kindergartners who are riding the bus for the first time. She asks the parents, “How do you feel about putting your child in the hands of a stranger?” The emotion displayed by these parents provides drivers with all the incentive they need to take their jobs seriously. “That creates a strong awareness of what the parents feel like.”

Davie County School System
Mocksville, N.C.

Despite its small size, Davie County School System is doing some big things. Through consolidation of routing, control over contract transportation and effective use of a computer routing system, the transportation department has maximized use of state funds and earned a budget rating of 100 percent. To salute its efficiency and commitment to service, the department was awarded the Excellence in Pupil Transportation Award last year from the Institute for Transportation Research and Education. Running 60 buses daily in Mocksville, N.C., Davie County uses a computer program called Transportation Information Management System (TIMS) to locate each student’s home and map routes for drivers. Todd Naylor, director of transportation, says this system has been “the biggest reducer of cost” for his department. Personnel is the most expensive item in their budget and the computerized system makes for very accurate accounting of the time it takes a driver to complete each route, thus eliminating overpayment errors. To further reduce expenditures, Naylor has contracted out special-needs transportation. He said that the average transportation cost for one of his district’s buses ranges from $1.37 to $1.57 a mile, whereas it costs only $1 a mile to contract out for their special-needs services, including bus, driver and monitor. With efficiency in mind, each of the nine schools in the district hires its own drivers and negotiates pay based on the routes it has to cover. This division of labor enables each school to take control of its transportation services and to monitor operations closely. But saving money doesn’t mean scrimping on safety. Drivers are offered at least three six-hour training sessions a year and are paid a stipend to attend. They are also awarded bonuses for perfect attendance and pay supplements for well-maintained vehicles — all of this without going over the $745,000 budget.

Dietrich’s Bus Service
Grand Forks, N.D.

Dietrich Bus Service embraces one of the key business fundamentals of the 1990s - customer service. The company prides itself on providing a high level of service to four school districts. “It’s the equipment, the drivers, everything,” says Don Enger, the company’s general manager. “We are very committed to having professional drivers.” Dietrich’s operates 115 buses from four locations. Rather than promote a single program to inspire its drivers, the company relies on the local managers to rally the troops. “Different things work for different people,” Enger says. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working. At Jamestown Public Schoo1s, the company operates 20 to 25 buses and transports about 1,500 students. “They’ve done an excellent job for us,” says Superintendent David Haney. “They take a great burden off of me because I know that when they’re operating, it’s going to be done safely.” Haney is particularly impressed with Dietrich’s performance during inclement weather. “We have very severe winters here, and they go the extra mile, literally, to make sure that our programs run and that the kids are safe,” he says. Three of the past four winters have been unusually harsh, requiring close cooperation between contractor and school district. “Their office staff is up early and driving the roads to determine whether or not it’s safe for the buses to go,” says Haney. For his part, he’s monitoring the weather on radar. After comparing notes with Dietrich’s staff, Haney says he can make a decision by 6 a.m. “Safety is the primary issue, and they’re just extremely cooperative and very professional,” he says. Dietrich’s reputation at Valley City Public Schools, about 20 miles east of Jamestown along Interstate 94, is also strong. “The relationship that we have is just excellent,” says Superintendent Dean Koppelman. “I enjoy the contacts that I’ve had with them, from the owner, Richard Dietrich, to Don Enger, who does a lot of the coordination of service with the school. They’re great people to work with.” Enger says the company has enough drivers, even in the face of an unemployment rate that is effectively zero. “We do pretty well,” he says. “It reflects back on the managers. They’re not waiting for people to come to them, they go to the people.”

Winton Woods City Schools
Winton Woods, Ohio

“We’re really using our staffing and our resources to their ultimate value,” says Pete Japikse, transportation director for Winton Woods City Schools, where drivers each run an average of 10 routes per day. Located in a small urban area just north of Cincinnati, the district experiences what Japikse describes as an “economical” advantage in that routes are shorter and drivers can complete more of them per day than can drivers in other districts. As his 30 drivers put forth their full efforts, Japikse gives his 100 percent as well. He does all of the routing himself, a challenge he compares to working on “a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle where nothing is square.” In covering multiple routes, drivers interact with 200 to 300 students daily, making it difficult for them to get to know students individually. Not surprisingly, discipline is a major concern for drivers, who often don’t transport the same students in the afternoon as they do in the morning. Japikse has taken a team approach to discipline, working with drivers, school officials and parents. “We focus very heavily on getting parents involved at an early level,” says Japikse. “We’re actually asking parents to help solve the problem before we get to a disciplinary mode.” This approach to discipline, he says, is helping drivers and principals feel a greater sense of ownership over their jobs. Providing support in the area of discipline is just one of the steps the district takes toward retaining drivers. Winton Woods also offers its drivers the opportunity to work extra hours washing buses, doing vehicle maintenance, participating in school safety programs or training drivers from other districts. Having drivers provide extra services is highly cost-effective, says Japikse. Not only does it benefit the department, but it also supplies drivers with a supplemental source of income.

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