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October 01, 2000  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Great Fleets Across America, Part V

(Tennessee - Wyoming)


Williamson County Schools
Franklin, Tenn.

Fleet composition: 160 buses
Students transported daily: 14,000
Schools served: 30
Operations budget: $6 million
Driver wages: $10.68 to $18 per hour
Tom Taylor, operations director, facilities

Operating the school transportation program in the fastest-growing county in Tennessee has its challenges. “We’re just trying to keep up,” says Tom Taylor, operations director. Student enrollment is expanding by about 900 students each year. “It’s a constant battle, especially because the traffic is really heavy since we’re close to Nashville,” he says.

But the challenges have not daunted Taylor or his staff. “We’ve really worked hard to make sure that drivers understand that they’re a key part of the school system and to get them to enjoy coming to work,” he says. To that end, Taylor says he praises drivers whenever possible and has created a comprehensive driver recognition program. “Many of the drivers have told me that for the first time, they are proud to be a school bus driver for Williamson County Schools,” Taylor says.

This recognition program includes Driver of the Month awards for each area of the county. Chosen by fellow drivers, the winners receive certificates, passes to a fast-food restaurant and coverage in the local news media. At year’s end, the department also recognizes a Rookie Driver of the Year and Driver of the Year as well as drivers who’ve reached landmark job anniversaries such as 10, 15 and 20 years. “We had one driver, Franklin Bond, who was recognized for 54 years on the job,” Taylor says.

But recruiting drivers continues to be a struggle. In Williamson County, the unemployment rate is less than 1 percent, Taylor says. “The best method for us is talking to people, word of mouth,” he says. “We also run ads in the local newspapers and on educational shows on public access TV.”

Driver trainees undergo a rigorous program supervised by driver trainer Joe King. “When somebody completes the course with him, I know he’s a safe, competent driver,” Taylor says. “I’d put Joe up against anybody.”

Taylor has equal regard for his maintenance department. “We have a shop foreman and seven mechanics, and they do a terrific job,” he says. In addition to preventive maintenance and simple repairs, they’re capable of major procedures such as engine overhauls.


Spring Independent School District

Fleet composition: 171 buses
Students transported daily: 16,500
Schools served: 23
Operations budget: $5 million
Number of drivers: 157, plus 24 attendants
Driver wages: $10 to $20 per hour
Marcia Edge, transportation director

On unusually hot days — and there were many this summer in Texas — bus drivers at Spring Independent School District can look forward to snow cones or popsicles on their return to the bus yard. Transportation Director Marcia Edge says these frozen confections are one way of rewarding staff members. Morale, she says, is not a problem at her operation. “It’s a family atmosphere,” she says. “If anything happens, people pull together like you wouldn’t believe.”

Edge says drivers benefit from the district’s highly staggered bell times. “We have several quadruple runs,” she says. “Drivers here average about 32 hours per week.” Last year, the district began offering an even-pay program that allows drivers to receive nine months of wages spread over 12 months. About half of the eligible drivers signed up for the program, she says.

Morale is just one part of an exemplary transportation operation. Spring also boasts a sound driver training program. According to Edge, it’s the best in the state. She says each of her five trainers has attended the highly regarded train-the-trainer program at Texas A&M University. “The results from this training program have earned us national recognition from the National Association for Pupil Transportation,” she says.

They must be doing something right. Drivers at Spring are regularly honored by the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation. In 1999, Mae Piatkowski was named Regular Driver of the Year and Marilyn Curtis was named Special-Needs Driver of the Year. In addition, the at-fault accident rate during the 1999-2000 school year was 0.001 percent per miles driven, Edge says. “We travel over 2 million miles annually and have an excellent safety record,” she says.

Some of the credit for the fleet’s high safety rating belongs to the maintenance staff. Edge says her crew of 13 mechanics does an excellent job of caring for an admittedly older fleet of buses. She says all of the mechanics are ASE certified and two are ASE Master School Bus Technicians.


Jordan School District
Sandy, Utah

Fleet composition: 221 buses
Schools served: 81
Students transported daily: 17,000
Service area: 250 square miles
Annual mileage: 2.7 million
Steve Woods, transportation director

The area that Jordan School District serves certainly doesn’t fit the conventional definition of a “community.” It’s far too vast — 250 square miles in the southern half of Salt Lake County, extending from the Wasatch Mountain range on the east to the Oquirrh range on the west. But time and again, the district’s transportation employees display the kind of personal commitment normally reserved for serving small, close-knit communities.

Transportation Director Steve Woods says that commitment was in full view last spring when tragedy struck suddenly at one of the district’s campuses.

“It happened right after school,” Woods recalls. “The bell had just rung, and the buses were outside and starting to load. Then, wham, it hit. A child was struck and killed by lightning.”

Without hesitation, the bus drivers on the scene helped calm the children and voluntarily drove home many students who normally walk home from school. They walked students to their front door, making certain a parent was home. They readily assumed a role above and beyond that of a bus driver.

“I think our biggest success is keeping morale high within our staff,” says Woods, who joined the department last year. “We strive on a daily basis to make sure that people are happy, that we’re all helping each other, and that it’s a team effort. When our drivers are happy, I think that quality spills over to the way they treat the kids.”

Jordan School District is the largest of Utah’s 40 school districts, with a 2000-01 fall enrollment of more than 73,000 students. Each school day, district buses transport nearly 17,000 students. Bus drivers log more than 2.7 million miles annually. There are 361 regular-education routes, 233 special-education routes and more than 4,000 field trip and activity runs each year.

In addition to providing state-mandated classroom training for drivers, the department also offers extensive behind-the-wheel training out in the field. And not just in one model of school bus.

“We make sure we spend time with every driver in each brand of buses we have: Thomas Built, International and Blue Bird,” Woods says. “We want to be certain each driver is familiar with all of our buses.”


Wildcat Busing Inc.
Hardwick, Vt.

Fleet composition: 24 buses
Schools served: 7
Terminals: 2
Founded: Late 1970s
Dona Bessette, president
Cary (Bear) Bessette, vice president

About 25 miles north of Montpelier, Wildcat Busing Inc. has carved out a comfortable niche in rural Vermont. It’s a father-and-son operation — Dona and Cary (or Bear as he is more commonly known) Bessette — with deep roots in the community. Born and raised in the area, they know how to provide the personal touch to their customers. “We’re small enough to provide personal service,” says Cary, who runs the operation on a day-to-day basis.

It all starts with the drivers. “They were born here too,” says Dona, “and they’re the nicest group of people.” Discipline problems aboard buses aren’t much of an issue. Dona says the drivers know how to handle their passengers. “It’s just like they’re rearing their own children,” he says.

Despite the relaxed, rural setting, Dona says his drivers must adhere to a high standard. “We let them know that there’s no such thing as an average driver,” he says. “We have good bus drivers.” He expects drivers to know the names of every passenger. And he reminds them not to neglect the obedient children. “You have to tell them how good they are,” he says. “We try to promote positive reinforcement.”

Because the community is tight-knit, the Bessettes also have long-standing friendships with all of the school principals and administrators. These relationships have been forged in the past two decades, since Dona was asked to take over a school bus route for an elementary school. At the time, he owned a car dealership and was operating an activity bus for the district. A few years later, he sold the dealership and focused on the school bus business. He hasn’t looked back.

The company’s fleet of 24 buses is maintained in-house. Cary oversees the maintenance program with the help of two full-time mechanics who also service outside vehicles. “Our buses always come first,” says Cary. “If there’s any problem, a bad light or brake problem, it’s taken care of immediately. Busing is our priority.”


Fairfax County Public Schools
Lorton, Va.

Fleet composition: 1,428 buses
Students transported daily: 105,000
School sites: 234
Operations budget: $57.5 million
Driver wages: $11.80-$22.87 per hour
Attendant wages: $9.32-$16.03 per hour
Linda Farbry, transportation director
Tim Parket, assistant transportation director

Battling a driver shortage puts a strain on any pupil transportation program. But when your assignment is to transport more than 100,000 students a day, the stress is immeasurable. That’s why Tim Parker, assistant transportation director at Fairfax County Public Schools, says, “The people here work miracles every day.”

The district employs more than 1,100 drivers but could still use about 100 more. Like many school districts and contractors around the country, Fairfax is forced to use office staff as substitute bus drivers. It’s also asking its core drivers to handle extra runs. “There are overtime possibilities, but the drivers need to learn to say no, too. We are concerned that we are overworking dedicated people,” Parker says.

Driver training is handled by a staff of 10. Approximately 200 driver recruits go through the process each year. Training consists of 144 hours of behind-the-wheel, classroom and on-the-job instruction.

With rising requirements for inclusion, a new program has been designed for drivers of special-needs students. School psychologists and special-needs experts will meet regularly to discuss concerns and recommend techniques and skills to deal with difficult students, Parker says. “We want to find what works well in the classroom and take those strategies onto the bus.”

Parker says the department has initiated a professional development program called the Transportation Academy. This summer program targets drivers who have the aptitude to become lead drivers or route supervisors. The program includes 30 hours of computer training, 31 hours of basic English and writing skills, 13 hours of customer service training and 30 hours of leadership skills. All told, the academy provides 127 hours of initial training. Follow-up training will take place periodically during the school year, Parker says.

Another plan to help new drivers is the Driver Mentor Program where each new driver is assigned to a senior driver. The mentor offers orientation, coaching, and follow-up during the new driver’s first year on the job. Many anxious moments have been averted and lasting friendships have been established with this endeavor.


First Student Inc.
Rochester, Wash.

Fleet composition: 35 buses
Schools served: 9
Students transported daily: 1,500
Number of drivers: 41
Susan Hendrickson, regional operations manager

Last year, when a British transportation company called FirstGroup acquired Ryder Student Transportation Services, the package included a small-town school bus operation in Rochester, Wash. For the staff in Rochester, the change of ownership meant a new company moniker, new stationery and new office procedures. But they quickly learned that their new parent company shared their commitment to ongoing driver training and high safety standards.

“Safety is our No. 1 concern,” says Stan Canaday, technician-in-charge. “Anything related to safety is taken care of before it ever becomes a problem.”

For the past three years, the Rochester operation has received a 100 percent score during scheduled inspections by the Washington State Patrol.

Contracted by the Rochester School District, First Student’s Rochester operation maintains 35 school buses. The company owns 30 of those, and the district owns five. Company bus drivers transport 1,500 students each day.

The state requires school bus drivers to undergo a minimum of three hours of training annually. But First Student far exceeds state mandates, offering additional instruction on such diverse topics as defensive driving, caring for special-needs passengers, winter driving, emergency evacuation procedures and blood-borne pathogens. New drivers typically spend a minimum of 25 hours each on classroom and behind-the-wheel training.

First Student Rochester employs a full-time safety coordinator, Darlene Petersen. Once a month, bus drivers attend a mandatory safety meeting as part of the company’s ongoing training program. A safety action team also meets monthly. In addition to inspecting company facilities, the team verifies that safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers, is in good working order.

“We’re a real team-oriented company, so it’s been fun to implement our team concepts here, such as our Monday morning meetings,” says Susan Hendrickson, the operations manager for First Student’s Region 10, which encompasses Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Colorado. “There’s an open-door policy here, and it’s great that employees have embraced that.”


Randolph County Schools
Elkins, W.V.

Fleet composition: 69 buses
Students transported daily: 4,000
Schools served: 15
Average driver wages: $15 per hour
Annual mileage: 815,808
Gail Tacy, transportation director

Operating a quality transportation program in a sparsely populated rural area with one-lane gravel roads, limited divided highways and winding, steep grades requires strict attention to safety and maintenance. And it helps to keep an eye on the wildlife, too.

“Because of the mountains and valleys, foggy mornings are the norm, and wildlife, deer in particular, can show up in front of a bus at any time,” says Gail Tacy, transportation director. Last winter, an unfortunate bobcat stepped into the path of a school bus.

But wild creatures prowling foggy roads aren’t the greatest challenge for this fleet of 69 buses. It’s trying to keep the length of ride to under an hour. “Scheduling is a very hard thing in this county,” says Tacy. In addition to long stretches of country roads, driver face traffic congestion in the hubs of communities that dot the county. “This is a region where the potential for accidents is high.”

To ensure that the fleet is up to the challenge, Randolph County’s four mechanics bring the buses in every 2,000 miles for an inspection. And, if a driver notices anything amiss with his vehicle, the maintenance department takes care of the problem right away. “We don’t wait,” Tacy says. “We make sure the bus is in top condition before it goes out on the road.” He adds that the fleet’s defect rating is .115 per bus, one of the lowest in the state.

Driver recruits receive 30 hours of pre-service training, while veteran drivers must undergo 18 hours of in-service training each year in CPR, First Aid, defensive driving and behavior management, among other things. Morale is high, Tacy says, because the drivers embrace a team concept. “They take care of each other,” he says. “If one driver happens to miss a child at one stop, another driver will step in and pick him up.”

There’s also a professional attitude among the drivers that helps them work well with school personnel and the public. “Our men and women are very proud of what they’re doing,” Tacy says.


Verona Bus Service Inc.
Verona, Wis.

Fleet composition: 196 buses
Students transported daily
Districts served: 10
Driver wages: $10 to $13 per hour
Bob Anderson, owner
Margaret McNamara, vice president and manager

“It’s the drivers that make the company, and I believe that our drivers are the best,” says Margaret McNamara, vice president and manager of Verona Bus Service. “I just need a few more.”

McNamara’s lament is common throughout the country. But the driver shortage is particularly acute in the Verona-Madison area, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the United States. To cover routes, office staff and mechanics are forced to drive on a regular basis, McNamara says.

Adding to the difficulty in recruiting drivers are some common misconceptions. “People seem to have this fear that the kids are terrible and the hours are terrible,” says McNamara. The reality is that the passengers are relatively well behaved and that many of Verona’s drivers work 30 to 40 hours per week. “And they really enjoy doing it,” she says.

Serving 10 districts, Verona deploys nearly 200 buses daily from eight terminals to transport 10,000 students. The vehicles are maintained at six facilities by 12 mechanics. Drivers are encouraged to report even the slightest problems on their inspection sheets. “That way the mechanics can take of minor problems before they become major problems,” McNamara says.

Drivers are encouraged to provide superior service. Customer service cards are distributed to teachers during field trips, and positive comments are printed in the company newsletter and posted on the Outstanding Customer Service Board. “This helps because drivers get recognition for excellent service,” McNamara says.

To keep drivers on their toes, McNamara scours the Internet for news stories about school bus accidents. She analyzes the incidents with the drivers, focusing on prevention. “My question is: ‘Could this happen to you and how could you avoid something similar on your route?’” she says.

McNamara, who started as a driver with the company in 1986 when it was founded, has a special bond with her drivers. “I consider them friends,” she says. “They are the nicest people you could meet anywhere.”


Sheridan County School District No. 2
Sheridan, Wyo.

Fleet composition: 42 buses
Schools served: 8
Students transported daily: 1,485
Harold Campbell, transportation supervisor

Wyoming state law requires public school bus drivers to undergo a minimum of six hours of training annually. But the transportation department at Sheridan County School District No. 2 routinely exceeds this mandate, sending drivers each year to such programs as the Montana Driving School and the annual workshop and safety competition sponsored by the Wyoming Pupil Transportation Association.

The Sheridan district’s commitment to driver training and safety has paid dividends: Not only does the district boast a pristine safety record, but district bus drivers placed in last year’s Wyoming Pupil Transportation Workshop and Safety Competition.

“The most important ingredient to our successful transportation department is our drivers’ attitude and dedication to safety,” says Harold Campbell, the district’s transportation supervisor.

That’s why district bus drivers welcome the opportunity to attend the Montana Driving School, where they learn such advanced skills as skid control, controlled braking, variable cornering and off-road recovery. Drivers walk away from the training sessions better prepared to handle even the most extreme driving conditions. “It’s a fantastic school,” Campbell says. “We try to send as many drivers each year as possible.”

Of the district’s 35 bus drivers, about a half-dozen have logged more than 20 years with the district, Campbell says. “We lose three to four drivers a year, but normally they’re the ones who haven’t been here long. We try to meet the needs of the drivers as much as we can.”

The district transportation department buses 1,485 students each school day, serving a middle school, junior high, high school and five elementary schools. There are 28 morning and afternoon bus routes and seven noon kindergarten routes.

Four years ago, the transportation department revamped the entire bus schedule — a major undertaking that markedly improved efficiency. “We maximized our loads, eliminated a bus route and eliminated the afternoon waiting times at the schools,” Campbell says. “Today, the buses are there when the school dismisses. In five minutes, we’ve got all the kids on the buses and they’re gone.”

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