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

Great Fleets Across America, Part 2

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Harlow’s School Bus Service Inc.
Webster, S.D.

In Webster, perched in the northeast corner of South Dakota, “everything is small,” says Ron Block, general manager of Harlow’s School Bus Service. Everything, that is, except the bus routes. These are long, which under other circumstances might create behavior management problems. Not so in Webster. “Most of the kids do their homework on the bus or they have a nap,” Block says. “Generally, they’re well behaved.” Harlow’s operates buses for four South Dakota school districts. The company also has school bus operations in North Dakota, Montana and Idaho. Block’s operation transports approximately 900 students using 20 route buses. Block says his driver count is above 50, but concedes that Webster is not immune to the driver shortage. “Hiring drivers is quite difficult,” he says. “So when you get drivers, you try your darndest to keep them.” A key factor in driver retention is job satisfaction. “Drivers have to know that what they do is important,” Block says. “And they’ve got to like what they do. That means that they have to like children and they’ve got to like driving. The vast majority of our drivers are parents and do like children. That’s why they stay.” Harlow’s drivers average only 15 to 20 hours per week, mainly to supplement their incomes. Many of them are farmers. All of them are experienced in driving in inclement weather. “Because we start picking up kids before 7 a.m., many times a school bus is the first vehicle down the road after a snow storm,” Block says. Rainy weather also poses problems. “We’ve had eight years of very wet weather with a lot of roads that have been flooded. That means a lot of detours. That’s been a challenge as well,” Block says. The company maintains its 30-bus fleet with three full-time mechanics. Harlow’s is affiliated with Harlow’s Bus Sales Inc., an AmTran-International-Mid Bus dealer for five states. The tie-in with the sales arm has advantages. “We’re able to replace buses quickly or we can take a trade-in from a school district and put it to work while we’re waiting for someone to purchase it,” he says. “The two companies work hand in hand.”

Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
Clarksville, Tenn.

Hailed as one of the most progressive and innovative districts in the Southeast, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System takes pride in staying ahead of the technological curve in school transportation. “We’re sort of on the cutting edge of everything,” says Transportation Director Joe Haley. For example, the district has embraced computerized routing, laptop computers in the shop for diagnostics and computerized radio trunking, which will enable workers to use their radios like cellular phones, without the hassle of sharing frequencies and overhearing other conversations. It would be easy to overshoot the budget with this technological fervor, but Haley says he’s managed to control the overhead. “If you operate efficiently, you can have about anything you need, and you can be very innovative,” he says. He advises watching the budget daily, just like you would at home. The school district, north of Nashville, transports 17,500 students daily on 212 buses, including 26 special-needs buses that serve one of the largest special-education programs in the state. Fleet maintenance is performed in a state-of-the-art facility that’s conducive to regular preventive maintenance. Haley says his department has received full clearance on every state inspection and remains the only system within Tennessee to inspect its own buses once a month. Haley says that his department has tried to be a forerunner, but has done it by borrowing ideas from other districts. “Every time I go to a conference, the main thing I do is pick people’s minds on what they’re doing,” he says. Then he puts the ideas into action.

Corpus Christi Independent School District
Corpus Christi, Texas

Keeping school bus drivers happy and informed go hand-in-hand. So says Don Davenport, interim transportation director at Corpus Christi Independent School District, located along the state’s southern gulf coast. “We try to instill in people that this is a great job and that we’ll support them with whatever they need,” he says. Davenport, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, believes that his 200 drivers and attendants need more than the standard training. Before the start of school, he booked a conference room at a Holiday Inn and had his drivers undergo training in crisis management, communication, dealing with children with special needs and dealing with themselves. “People have to be taught certain things, especially in how to deal with one another,” he says. One driver approached Davenport after the meeting and told him, “I’ve been here for 19 years and no one has ever done this for us.” He is still warmed by that memory. “When I leave here, I’ll always remember that, because it made me feel good,” he says. Davenport is also proud of his maintenance staff, which takes care of 197 school buses, 113 other wheeled vehicles and 245 other pieces of equipment such as lawn mowers and weed eaters. Thirteen mechanics — 10 of whom are ASE certified — and three supervisors staff the garage from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. The district encourages ASE certification by paying for the tests. “It’s been a big morale booster,” Davenport says. The district transports 8,000 students at a cost of approximately $7 million. Davenport says one method of controlling costs is to reduce unscheduled maintenance. To this end, he stocks a golf cart with lights and fluids and sends it around the bus lot while the vehicles are being pre-tripped. Drivers who find problems with lights or fluids simply hang a sign that says “L” or “F.” The problem can be handled by a mechanic’s helper without a trip to the shop. “That’s how we keep our availability up,” he says.

Uintah School District
Vernal, Utah

The transportation department at Uintah School District serves 13 schools, 3,880 students and 180 routes a day, scores points for its emphasis on safety and its accuracy in reporting mileage and route times to the state. Last year, Brent Huffman, pupil transportation specialist for the state office of education, oversaw statewide audits for several district transportation systems and was particularly impressed with the results in Uintah. He said inspectors observed a fleet whose drivers conducted extremely thorough pre- and post-trip inspections; oversaw excellent loading and unloading procedures and effectively conveyed bus stop safety to students. Because the district’s 51 yellow buses are all large vehicles — 84-passenger, 40-foot buses — Uintah requires drivers to practice their driving skills on skill courses that replicate those used in state and national roadeo competitions. “The safety of our students is our top priority,” says Floyd Collett, supervisor coordinator of transportation. “We have a huge mural hanging in our office that says ‘Children are our Business, Safety is our Goal.’ It’s a constant reminder to everyone.” Uintah only offers contracted positions to drivers who have worked for a minimum two to three years as substitute drivers and have demonstrated their driving skills to the district. There are 39 full-time drivers, two part-time drivers, five substitute drivers and five drivers in training. “The older drivers help the younger drivers by showing them the ropes,” explains Collett. “In an emergency, the more experienced drivers rub off on the newer ones so that everyone knows how to fall into line and do what they’re supposed to do.” The audit also showed only a 3 percent deviation in the mileage and 2 percent deviation in the route times for Uintah District as reported by its drivers. “Uintah has helped protect taxpayer money by not inflating their numbers,” says Huffman, who explained that the state uses these figures to determine operating budgets allotted for student transportation. “They’ve made a conscientious effort to explain to their drivers the importance of reporting accurately.” Uintah logs an average 3,787 miles each day, with a $1.9 million annual budget. According to Collett, the entire 57-member staff, including two mechanics, takes pride in all areas of their work. “Even in the garage, the floors are so clean you can eat off them, seriously,” he marvels.

Bet-Cha Transit Inc.
New Haven, Vt.

Charles R. Smith started his business in 1968 with a handshake, not a contract. For $5,400, he bought a new 1969 International with a Thomas body and embarked on a career that has spanned more than three decades. Smith, a dairy farmer, got started in the business by subbing as a school bus driver in 1967. The next year, a school board member asked him to take a one-bus contract and offered him a loan at 2 percent interest. “They were just desperate,” Smith says. He accepted the job, sealing it with a handshake. He continued to work as a dairy farmer until 1979, when he sold that business to become a full-time contractor. These days, he operates up to 90 school buses and deals with 34 towns and districts. His company, Bet-Cha Transit, has 75 regular runs and transports approximately 4,000 students per day. Most of his contracts are close to home; the farthest is 50 miles from his home base. In a highly competitive business, Smith has something that’s relatively rare — a sterling reputation. “He’s an old Vermonter type with a heart of gold,” says Kevin Endres, who sold Milton, Vt.-based Mountain Transit Inc. to Atlantic Express earlier this year. “His equipment wasn’t the best or the newest, but he was always committed to safe transportation of children.” Smith recently traded in many of his older buses for new vehicles, citing practicality as well as public image. “People don’t like to see their children being driven around in rust buckets,” he says. The new buses also make life easier for his longtime service manager, Ronald Martell. “He’s been with me for 30 years,” Smith says. “I couldn’t run the business without him.” Smith maintains his marketshare by keeping his overhead low enough to allow him to bid competitively. “We try to keep our bids economical,” he says. “I just want to try to make a living.” Smith’s greatest challenge is finding drivers. “I have to advertise all the time,” he says. More than just putting people behind the wheel, Smith says the secret is finding the right people. “To become a bus driver, you have to be the best in the community,” he says. “They’re high-caliber people.”

Norfolk City Public Schools
Norfolk, Va.

John Hazelette is proud of his district’s philosophy on customer service. As director of transportation for the 55 Norfolk City Public Schools, he considers himself and his department responsible not only for transporting 19,000 students daily, but also for ensuring their safety from morning to afternoon. His department developed a hazard investigation team composed of a traffic engineer for the city, the executive officer of the traffic division for the police department, the transportation director (Hazelette) and a parent from the Norfolk County PTA. “We have a lot of our kids that walk to school, being in an urban area,” he explains. “If the parents or the schools or anybody feels that the route may be hazardous in some way, we’ll all get in the car together and actually go out and review all the circumstances.” The hazard team offers a broad range of perspectives on the safety issue. Often, bus routes can be altered to pick up students walking in unsafe areas, or crossing guards can be hired for added protection. “We have a group of individuals from a lot of different walks of life that can make an educated decision as far as what’s the best way to go about it,” says Hazelette. His team also installs video cameras on their school buses to observe student behavior. The school principals show the videos in student assemblies to remind students that they are being monitored and that standards will be enforced. The Norfolk City Public Schools have also been recognized for an aggressive program aimed at deterring motorists from passing stopped school buses. Using a survey from drivers pinpointing problem areas, they worked with the police department to position an unmarked vehicle on the road to issue tickets to non-complying motorists. “Virginia has done a survey over the past few years and we have seen our reported incidents from our drivers almost cut in half. So we’re really excited about that process and the success we’ve had out here,” says Hazelette, who plans to use the same strategy this year. Driver shortage is the biggest problem their department faces this year. To deal with the problem, they offer recruitment bonuses, training bonuses and employee recognition programs. “Make people feel a part of the big team,” reminds Hazelette. “Student achievement is what we’re after.”

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