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October 01, 2001  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Great Fleets Across America, Part IV


Los Alamos, N.M.

Fleet 38 buses
Students transported daily 1,523
Staff 50
Schools served 7
Driver wages $13.80 per hour
Service area 110 square miles

Early last May, the buses at Los Alamos Public Schools weren’t hauling children to and from school. Instead, they were evacuating citizens from the fire-engulfed Cerro Grande area, where more than 400 housing units were destroyed. When the fires finally subsided, the buses transported many of the exiled residents back into town to view the remains of their homes and community. “The school buses were the only vehicles that could get in or out,” explains Geoff Rodgers, transportation director for the district. “The fire had been smoldering for days. Nobody thought it would come through town, but we’d been preparing for it.” Rodgers’ ties to the community are close, as he sits on the seven-member county council. Los Alamos started this school year two drivers short of covering its routes -- but not due to lack of effort. Rodgers has tried various recruitment tactics, including running an ad in the newspaper and speaking on a local radio show. “I’m trying to change the image of drivers, by highlighting the variety that we have in our department,” he says. “We have a guy with a Ph.D., we have an opera singer and a mortgage broker.” What works against him in recruitment is the part-time nature of the position and the fact that the district is located in an isolated community with a high cost of living. The largest local employer, the Los Alamos Lab, attracts many of the town’s job seekers because it offers full-time work at reasonable wages. When Rodgers came to the department six years ago, he used the skills he gained as a flight instructor for the U.S. Army to reformat the district’s driver training materials. He wanted the materials to be written in such a way that they could be used at any transportation department, much like the Army uses one training system worldwide. The state director of pupil transportation was so impressed with the endeavor that he invited Rodgers and his staff to build the model for a statewide training program. “New Mexico now has a structured training program that all instructors must follow in order to certify school bus drivers,” says Rodgers. “I’ve seen an increased knowledge base in our new recruits since the program was implemented.”


N. White Plains, N.Y.

Fleet 195 buses
Students transported daily 5,200
Staff 102
Schools served 35 school districts
Operating budget $4.3 million

It’s easy to get confused when reading about the varied student transportation services offered by the Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Educational Services (SWBOCES) in N. White Plains, N.Y. Not only does SWBOCES operate and maintain the 67 school vehicles that it owns, it also manages transportation services for eight neighboring school districts. “In all, the transportation of more than 5,200 students is overseen by SWBOCES, as it provides executive direction to six different bus companies, operating 120 routes for those school districts,” explains Jonathan Ross, director of transportation. But the complexity doesn’t end there. SWBOCES runs a cooperative school bus maintenance facility in which it inspects and maintains SWBOCES-owned buses as well as 150 school vehicles from 10 neighboring school districts. This is all part of the board’s mission to “collaborate with school districts, agencies and communities to meet their educational challenges by providing regional leadership and cost-effective, high-quality services.” Established in 1948, SWBOCES currently offers more than 100 educational services to the 35 regional school districts. Linda Cohen, mother of a special-needs student transported by SWBOCES, says that the services the board provides far exceed those her daughter has received from other transporters. “Whether it’s showing flexibility in adjusting Ellen’s drop-off time or ensuring there is an air-conditioned bus in the summer, the BOCES transportation team has been wonderful,” she says. The quality of the service the BOCES provides can be attributed largely to its focus on driver training. Each employee receives a minimum of six hours of formal classroom training per year. “We set our own standards for the development of our transportation employees, exceeding those mandated by the New York State Education Department by 50 percent,” says Ross. Since taking over transportation services for the BEPT Pupil Transportation Consortium, which comprises four school districts, SWBOCES has saved those districts more than $1 million in transportation costs. The Association of School Business Officials International recognized the Southern Westchester BOCES for this accomplishment last year.


Asheville, N.C.

Fleet 288 buses
Students transported daily 15,850
Staff 29
Schools served 49
Driver wages $8.50 to $11.57
District area 659 square miles
Daily mileage 16,050
Operating budget $4 million

Cutting edge is not necessarily the first description that comes to mind when one thinks of school bus fleets, but Buncombe County Schools is working to change that. Buncombe County has taken bold steps to introduce new technology and stringent operational procedures in its transportation department. Buncombe County was the first transportation system in North Carolina to install stop arms with strobe lights on its entire fleet. The installation of stop arms with strobe lights has since been standardized on all new school buses in North Carolina. In addition, each of Buncombe County’s school buses has also been equipped with a roof-mounted strobe light. A transportation staff of 29 ensures that Buncombe CountyÕs buses are safe to transport 15,850 students daily. Mechanic teams are assigned buses that they are responsible for inspecting at least every 30 days and conducting preventive maintenance services every 6,000 miles. Due to the tight ship Buncombe County runs, road calls and unscheduled repairs account for less than 1 percent of the work completed. In the 2000-01 school year, Buncombe County received the best rating in all of North Carolina during an annual state-wide school bus inspection conducted by the Department of Public Instruction. District drivers maintain unique relationships with the schools they service and the children they transport. Because each of the principals at Buncombe CountyÕs 49 schools selects the bus drivers that will service his or her school, bus drivers often become personally involved with their schools. “A lot of our drivers work within the schools as teacher assistants, some as teachers, some of them work in child nutrition, some are custodians,” says Transportation Director Harold Laflin. Consequently, says Laflin, “a lot of these drivers really build a rapport with the kids and develop real good relationships with them.” Buncombe County drivers proved themselves in the North Carolina State School Bus Roadeo last May when they placed first, fourth and seventh in the competition.


Beulah, N.D.

Fleet 15 buses
Students transported daily 600
Drivers 10
Schools served 3
Driver wages $500 to $650 per month

This year, the bus drivers at Beulah School District 27 received the North Dakota Safety Award for driving more accident-free miles than any other district its size in the state. Superintendent Wilfred Volesky attributes this achievement to the fact that many of the bus drivers come to the district with previous truck- or bus-driving experience, that they’re provided with relatively new, well-maintained buses to drive and that they conduct themselves as dedicated pupil transportation professionals. “We do have good, safe drivers. I’ve been here eight years and we’ve had some very minor scrapes, but overall, our drivers are safety conscious. When a motorist passes our buses illegally, I’m made aware of it,” says Volesky. Beulah School District consists of seven rural bus routes and three city routes. Drivers on city routes make less money because the routes are shorter. Volesky says that the driver shortage has not hit his department hard, but that it has had an impact. “As far as our core group of drivers, we really don’t have much of a shortage. But we do have a shortage when it comes to subs,” he explains. When substitute drivers are unavailable, Volesky covers routes with teachers who have CDLs for the purpose of transporting students to activities. The buses at Beulah School District are not equipped with video cameras because Volesky says it wouldn’t be a wise investment of district funds. “We really don’t have any problems with discipline,” Volesky explains. Routing is still done by hand -- but not without the application of a very scientific process. A bus transportation committee made up of Volesky, three members of the school board and the district’s bus advisor meets annually to analyze the routes and the bus replacement schedule. “When we start to look at the routes, we include the drivers who drive those routes,” says Volesky. “We find ways to change the routes to make them more efficient.”


Cincinnati, Ohio

Fleet 33 buses
Students transported 2,500
Schools served 29
Driver wages $13.33 to $18.90 per hour
Service area 24 square miles

Serving one of Cincinnati’s most affluent suburbs, the transportation department at Indian Hill Exempted Village School District is held to a high standard by parents in the community. “They expect perfection every day,” says Cindy Ketterer, the district’s tranportation director. “The parents want to be noticed and want their issues resolved yesterday.” Fortunately for these parents, the transportation department has its own high expectations and does its best to be as close to perfect as possible. “Safety is our strongpoint,” says Tom Wuest, a driver and driver trainer. “I would put our program against any in the country.” All children in grades K-5 receive bus safety training, covering topics such as bus stop procedures, safe crossing practices and rules for riding the bus. In addition, drivers enforce a strict discipline policy that includes assigned seats and bus passes. Students who run afoul of the rules are the subject of letters sent home to their parents. “We’re lucky in that we have supportive parents,” says Ketterer. “We also have good backing from the administration.” Indian Hill’s drivers are among the most well-prepared in the state, Wuest says. Annual hours of in-service training exceeds state requirements. Hands-on training includes a defensive-driving course, operation of flares and fire extinguishers and evacuation of a smoke-filled bus. In addition, almost half of the drivers attend an advanced driving course during the summer on their own time. Wuest says the pre-service training is thorough, but doesn’t always produce a driver who’s ready for the challenge of transporting students. “Until they’ve mastered all of the elements of safe driving, I don’t let them drive,” he says. “The question I ask myself is, ‘Would I want this driver driving my own children?’ I have to know they’re comfortable with the bus and the responsibilities.” Maintenance of the district’s 33 buses is handled by a fleet manager and one other mechanic. The fleet manager is a certified ASE Master School Bus Technician. All repairs are handled by the maintenance staff except for tires and some warranty work. Rarely does a bus suffer a mechanical breakdown, which Ketterer credits to an exemplary preventive maintenance program.


Jenks, Okla.

Fleet 85 buses
Students transported daily 4,500
Staff 80
Schools served 9
Driver wages $9.10 an hour (starting)
Service area 29 square miles

You’ll have to forgive Transportation Director Ben Ferem if he repeats that Jenks School District is ‘a little different’ from other school districts. Thing is, he’s right. And most of the differences are positive ones. For example, the transportation department provides all of the district’s 4,500 students with a ride each morning and afternoon. “We don’t have any walk zones in our district,” Ferem says. “Our patrons want that kind of service.” Safety is a major consideration because many of the neighborhoods have no sidewalks and most of the schools are situated near busy intersections. The schools are also ‘a little different.’ Basically, they’re large. Ferem says one of the elementary schools has an enrollment of 2,000 students and is served by 32 buses. “We’re built on the large-school model,” he explains, “and because of that we have unique transportation issues.” Community support is also ‘a little different.’ Ferem says school bonds have been approved by voters for 33 straight years. “Typically, transportation services receives about $250,000 to $450,000 for equipment, which equates to about four buses,” he says. Jenks has a fleet of 85 buses that are spec’d, yes, a bit differently. The goal is to keep them on the road for 15 to 20 years, so the district orders rear-engine transit-style buses with brakes and front axles that are “heavier duty” than standard. “We get a lot of years out of those buses,” he says. It helps that the garage staff conducts an extensive summer maintenance program that includes steam cleaning of the undercarriage and the engine compartment. Morale at the bus compound is good. A strong team atmosphere has been developed over the years. “It’s a product of hiring good people,” he says. “My role is relatively small.” What he does do, however, is ensure that in-service training, such as a short trip to International Truck and Engine Corp.’s new bus plant in Tulsa, creates camaraderie and enthusiasm. “Without the support of everyone in the transportation department pulling together, we would be a very fragmented group,” Ferem says. “It takes everyone to make our operation run smoothly, from the dispatchers to the mechanics to the drivers.”


Springfield, Ore.

Fleet 72 buses
Students transported daily 4,300
Staff 61
School served 21

“We’re survivors,” says Volinda Wilson, transportation director at Springfield School District. Many of the 61 employees in the transportation department still can vividly recall the 1998 shooting at Thurston High School by 15-year-old Kip Kinkel, who killed two students and wounded more than two dozen others. He also shot and killed his parents. “We still have some repercussions, but we’re not as wounded by it anymore,” Wilson says. One of the key strengths of the transportation department is its training program, which Wilson says has been improving for the past four years due to the reinstitution of a full-time driver trainer position. The position was eliminated several years earlier to help balance the budget. “It was a detrimental decision,” Wilson says. “We’re just recovering from that poor choice.” Now, according to Wilson, the district has the best training program in Oregon. She credits driver trainer Theresa Barrett, who coordinates the training program. “We do everything we can to support training, and it works,” Wilson says. “We have a high standard.” Springfield drivers are high achievers in roadeos, having won the team competition at the state level for the past four years. Wilson says her drivers take pride in their accomplishments at the roadeo events and practice dutifully. It helps that they have a practice area that can be laid out like a roadeo course and that the department supports their efforts. “We’re always quizzing the drivers,” Wilson says, referring to occasional written tests that help them develop their knowledge base. The drivers belong to a labor union, but Wilson contends that the atmosphere is not compromised by this division. Ideas from drivers to improve the program are fairly considered, and many of them have been implemented, Wilson says. “We have a good relationship, and I think it’s equitable.” As the economy has soured, Springfield’s ability to hire drivers has improved. “We now have a surplus of applicants,” Wilson says, “where we used to have to beg for them.” Moreover, retention has improved. “When I came on board, we had to constantly fight against being a training ground for the local transit agency,” she says. “More of our drivers are staying. They’re happy. They’re here for the kids.”


Hanover, Pa.

Fleet 50 buses, 8 vans
Students tranported daily 4,000
Schools served 15
Service area 55 square miles
Driver wages $45.50 per day (minimum)

What does it take to be a good school bus driver? At South Western School District, it’s been determined that good drivers have the patience of a saint, nerves of steel and a great sense of humor. Transportation Director Regina Krysiak would know this because she started with the district as a bus driver back in 1977. “It was the most wonderful job I ever had,” she says. These days, it’s rare that Krysiak gets behind the wheel, but that doesn’t mean she’s lost her empathy for her 65 part- and full-time drivers. “I know their successes and their disappointments,” she says. “Our drivers give everything for the safety of the kids in our district. They don’t hesitate to lend a hand to anyone who needs it.” Often, the children who need the most help are the first-time riders, especially the younger ones. The transportation department has addressed that issue with a hands-on orientation program. It allows the children to meet their bus driver and to take a short ride on the bus with their parents before the start of the school year. “It makes that first day a little less scary,” says Krysiak. The transportation department provides safety training for elementary school children using an indoor puppet show that uses a wooden school bus replica. The training, which takes place during National School Bus Safety Week, uses humor to attract and keep the children’s attention. Two drivers, Amanda Cummins and Pat McGeeney, portray the puppet characters, Katy and Safety Hound. “They both do a wonderful job,” says Krysiak. The children also receive outdoor training in the proper methods of crossing in front of the bus, loading and unloading and riding. Krysiak says safety is also stressed from an equipment perspective. Strobe lights are being added to buses. Last year, video cameras were installed on several buses, helping to reduce the number of behavioral problems. While most districts use the videotape to show parents how their children misbehave aboard the bus, Krysiak says she shows footage of children behaving properly to encourage parents. “We like to show the positive as well as the not-so-positive,” she says.


Woonsocket, R.I.

Fleet 35 buses
Students transported daily 3,000
Schools served more than 30
Drivers 38

Recognizing the need to service the growing Hispanic student population, Valley Transportation made a concerted effort this summer to hire drivers and monitors from the Hispanic community. A job fair produced six or seven Spanish-speaking drivers, who have had an immediate positive impact on the operation. “It’s working out just great,” says Gene Chevrette, school transportation manager at Valley. “They have worked well with our Hispanic community, and they’ve also helped me communicate with Spanish-speaking parents, which I couldn’t do before.” To help non-Spanish-speaking drivers, the company has begun offering Spanish-language courses, he adds. Chevrette, who was promoted from a bus driver to transportation manager this past January, says driver training is one of the keys to a safe, efficient operation. Valley uses three trainers who each specialize in a different area to provide recruits with tag-team training. Chevrette says the driver retention rate is quite high, mainly because of thorough screening and training practices. Chevrette says he gives applicants a “real-world view” of a driver’s life during their first interview: “I tell them, ‘You don’t mind getting on a bus at 6:15 in the morning when it’s 15 degrees, do you?’” Some of the drivers drop out at that point, but those who make it through the full screening and training process are likely to stay. Valley is in the third year of its contract with Woonsocket School District, which previously had contracted with First Student. Chevrette, who worked for First Student, says very few of its drivers transitioned to Valley, creating a considerable challenge for owner Bill Legare. “He trained 90 percent of his drivers from scratch,” Chevrette says. “That was a huge job.” Now that many of the drivers have a couple of years of experience under their belts, things are running more smoothly, though Chevrette identified areas for improvement during his first several months as transportation manager. While recuperating from hip surgery this summer, he had time to fine-tune his strategy. In August he unveiled his organizational changes, which were enthusiastically received by the drivers. “Now we’re organized and ready to roll,” he says.


Anderson, S.C.

Fleet 89 buses
Schools served 14
Students transported 6,000
Service area 112 square miles

The driver shortage that plagued the school district for several years has been reduced to a non-issue. “Three years ago, more than a dozen drivers had double routes because of shortages,” says Transportation Director Darryl K. Webb. “This year we started with all bus driver positions filled.” The filling of the driver ranks is due to more than the rising unemployment rate. The district has taken a strong stance in improving its driver retention rate. Drivers receive a local supplement over their state salary that ranges from $2.97 to $4.59 per hour, depending on length of service. They also receive a cost-of-living increase, and drivers who want to qualify for insurance benefits drive mid-day programs, wash buses and work in schools as aides and clerks. According to Webb, the average driver has eight years of experience with the district. “We are here to support them and to stay in touch with them,” he says. The school district covers 112 square miles, mostly in urban areas. Its fleet has video cameras, radios and child alert systems on all of its buses. Safe driving practices should be enhanced this year with the addition of a safety and training specialist, who will focus on improving the skills of drivers and preparing prospective drivers to pass their CDL exams. Webb says driver training includes quarterly professional development sessions on conflict resolution. Using grant money, the district has added security positions to bus routes. These security officers ride selected routes in the morning and afternoon, providing support to bus drivers. “This has helped tremendously with discipline referrals and driver morale,” Webb says. Before the start of the 2001-02 school year, students received a handbook called “Rules and Regulations for Bus Riders: Student and Parent Guide.” The handbook was assembled by a team that included principals, bus supervisors and drivers. Webb says it was the first handbook written for bus riders. It contains permission forms to ride the bus as well as rules, school phone numbers, school board policies and state regulations pertaining to school buses.

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