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October 01, 2003  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Great Fleets Across America, Part II

by staff editors Steve Hirano, Joey Campbell and Thomas McMahon, with contributions from editorial a


Keeping it in the family

Akina Bus Service, Ltd., Kihei

Buses: 16
Students transported daily: 950
Schools served: 2
Staff: 20
Average driver wage: $14.41

Akina Bus Service is on a short list of operations that have been able to grace SBF's Great Fleets Across America issue more than once. Also a Great Fleet in 2002, this small company has been in business for 75 years, making it the oldest school transportation provider on the island of Maui. Under the ownership of the Akina family, the company operates a fleet of 16 school buses, supplementing a successful motorcoach and tour bus business. A close-knit network of employees and a commitment to family values has been the standard at Akina.

"Having such an established family business really helps our standing in the community because our reputation is the highest," says Dennis Levine, general manager. "The owner of this company believes in quality and his commitment is to be the best."

Extensive training is part of this quest to become the best. Drivers are given in-depth instruction on multiple topics, including student management, defensive driving techniques, reference-point driving, pre-trip inspections, weather and more.

The extensive training pays obvious dividends in student management. According to Levine, student discipline is a very big problem for a lot of operations in Hawaii. But not for Akina. "We have a problem with less than 2 percent of our students and that is due to our drivers," he says. "When you have well-trained drivers who care about the children, your discipline problems become so many fewer."

Maintenance is another aspect of Akina's program that stands out among student transporters in Hawaii. Levine says there may be only one or two operations in the state that even come close to offering the same level of maintenance attention to their vehicles as Akina does. Two full-time mechanics maintain a fleet of 50 vehicles, which includes school buses, motorcoaches, vans, limousines and other vehicles. Each mechanic is ASE-certified in each type of vehicle. The company also has a huge bus lot, modern shop, a bus maintenance software system and new equipment. And of course, it always helps to have a fleet of new vehicles.

"We don't believe in purchasing less expensive vehicles," says Levine. "We only buy the best."



Answering the call for an overhaul

Bonneville Joint School District 93, Idaho Falls

Buses: 58
Students transported daily: 3,450
Schools served: 14
Staff: 58
Area of service: 450 square miles
Average driver wage: $10.50

In spite of decreased financial heft and increased costs, the Bonneville Joint School District 93 transportation department is thriving. After reevaluating and then completely revamping the system, the department’s operating budget decreased by 25 percent, or $500,000, in one year. The current year’s budget is $270,000 less than last year’s total. Maintaining the company's dependability, however, came at an enormous price, paid mostly at the expense of the district’s drivers.

"Because of the cuts, staff lost time, mileage and benefits," says Jeff Miles, transportation supervisor. "It came as a great personal sacrifice for the drivers, but in light of all that, they still stuck it through."

Amazingly, during the restructuring, no employees were laid off. One office member was transferred and, although five drivers left for various reasons, they weren’t replaced. To compensate for these losses within a disappearing department fund, school start times were adjusted, rural routes were combined and bus buying took a different approach.

In rural areas, bus capacities were running 40 percent or less. By merging all grades on these routes, overall capacity increased to nearly 75 percent. Bus purchasing became more frugal as well. For one thing, a third of the routes had backups, most of which were operated only a few miles a month. Also, many routes were using elaborately equipped buses with unnecessary amenities. Buying methods became more focused on the essentials rather than the extravagant.

But as the department banded together to prevent the system from failing, a worrisome public made itself heard by the school board. Instead of collapsing to public opinion, the board was steadfast in supporting the department, believing this to be the best move in the long run. Eventually their efforts and those of department employees paid off to ensure continuous operations, elevate driver morale and transform a community's doubtful pressure into praise.

"The public’s response has been very good once we got through the first year," says Miles. "And it is a group effort. The accomplishments that we made couldn’t have been done without each and every person. It’s a phenomenal amount of work."



Motivating employees in a different light

Laidlaw Education Services, Shaumberg

Buses: 330
Students transported daily: 26,000
Schools served: 8 districts
Staff: 375

The transportation operation at Laidlaw Education Services in Shaumberg, Ill., creates a themed slogan at the beginning of every new school year. Primarily meant to motivate employees, the slogan usually takes an entertaining or catchy idea and ties it in with school transportation. Last year, for instance, the slogan was "We are the magic," symbolizing the notion that school buses could be there to pick up students in a pinch, almost magically.

This year’s slogan, playing off the hit film "Pirates of the Caribbean," is "Going for our gold," with gold representing safety, customer service, a low accident rate and other positive goals for the operation. The staff staged a play in which the gold was robbed by pirates, each with its own negative theme such as absenteeism or competition. The overriding point was that these bad themes, or pirates, could be overcome by emphasizing a set of good habits such as attending safety meetings and being on time to work. By defeating the pirates, the operation can work to get back its gold.

"We get pretty elaborate with the themes," says Dan Gray, branch manager. "Really, our success here has been in getting employees involved and getting them information repetitively but presenting it in a new light each time."

These yearly themes have helped improve the operation on many fronts, and Laidlaw has the research to prove it. Every year the supervisors send a 10-question customer survey to school administrators, principals, coaches and parents. The questions ask about issues ranging from driver appearance and friendliness to the reliability and timeliness of school buses. On a rating scale of 1 to 5, the operation garnered an overall rating of 4.63 in the category titled "quality of transportation service."

Statistics also validate the high level of employee morale at the operation. During a recent employee opinion survey, about 73 percent of the staff responded. Of those respondents, a remarkable 72 percent of employees rated the company as "a great place to work," while 18 percent were neutral and 10 percent disagreed.

"I'm proud of the leadership of our staff," says Gray. "Everyone handles their responsibilities well and that is the key to this operation."



Setting the table for success

Monroe County Community Schools, Bloomington

Buses: 128
Students transported daily: 9,084
Schools served: 19
Staff: 180
Average driver wages: $10.74
Area of service: 352 square miles

At Monroe County Community School Corp. (MCCSC) in Bloomington, Ind., driver training is given great care and attention. If a driver requires, or even requests, additional training in a specific area, individual guidance will certainly be available.

"I'd like to think that we set up our drivers to succeed," says Transportation Director Mike Clark. "Let's say a driver has a fear or is having trouble with turning around or backing. There's training to help them overcome that, and we’ll focus on that for them."

With an accident policy that spans a two-year period, drivers are not suspended and will only be terminated after four incidents, giving them plenty of time to train and improve. This procedure, however, was considered lenient by some colleagues. But such opinions didn’t affect Clark’s decision to continue with the training approach.

"I was kind of made fun of by a colleague who thought it was too easy," he says. "But it works for us. [Coincidentally] she did ask for a copy of it later on."

An accident packet was also created and placed in every bus. It lists procedures and guidelines to aid drivers in handling collisions. Regardless of how minor an accident, the packet serves as a tool to help drivers remember what to do. Because with a busload of kids, drivers can get very nervous, says Clark. Requests for copies of the packet have been gladly obliged.

"In this line of work, I think networking is important," says Clark. "If you see something you like, then it’s a lot easier to take it and modify it to your district than to reinvent the wheel."

In addition to continuous driver training, all MCCSC school buses have been retrofitted with safety equipment such as crossing control arms and child reminder systems. Tilt steering wheels, air doors and seats as well as adjustable pedals offer drivers customized positions, protecting them from repetitive-motion injuries. These added features show a commitment to the safety and comfort of everyone in and around the school bus.

"We focus primarily on safety and driver training in order to maintain our safety record," says Clark. "Our extra effort in training is definitely a good thing. We certainly want our drivers to be comfortable with what they’re doing."



Bus maintenance paves the way

Southeast Polk Community School District, Runnells

Buses: 44
Students transported daily: 3,000
Schools served: 11
Staff: 49
Average driver wages: $16.38
Area of service: 114 square miles

Nearly 40 years of bus maintenance knowledge and ability goes into making an efficient and smooth transportation operation for Southeast Polk Community School District in Runnells, Iowa. Mechanics Kevin Talley, Bryan Tingley and Jerry Patterson combine their skills and knowledge to keep this fleet of school buses running in top form.

The department recently moved into a 9,750-square-foot, environmentally friendly bus maintenance facility with three work bays, a drive-through bay, a drive-through wash bay and a small vehicle work bay. Mechanics enjoy having sufficient storage space for all the various supplies needed to maintain the fleet. The maintenance facility is also outfitted with overhead lubrication racks, high-intensity quartz lighting and electrical air connections in several locations, increasing the resources available to mechanics.

A modernized, well-equipped facility serves to sharpen the staff’s ability to maintain the fleet and its outstanding safety record. Driver knowledge and confidence in their equipment has always been very high.

"I don’t have a problem at all with my bus because when something needs to be looked at, the mechanics are on it immediately," says bus driver Chris English. "I wouldn’t be afraid to drive my bus to New York." This feeling is reflected in the attitude of the entire staff of employees. They are proud to say they haven’t had a serious accident with any injuries in the past 10 years.

New drivers are put through a rigorous training program by the department’s driver trainer. Only after new drivers complete a training course, which includes a full obstacle and driving ability course, are they allowed to start participating on actual route training. The department has monthly training meetings for both drivers and mechanics. These include hot topics of the day and refresher training on the many aspects of school bus driving.

Director of Transportation Ken Fisher says that communication among everyone connected with the department — school board, administrators, staff, teachers, parents and students — has traditionally been superb.

"When any issue concerning safety comes up, everyone involved is willing to jump in and find a solution," says Fisher.



Continued success under adverse conditions

Kansas City Public Schools USD 500, Kansas City

Buses: 160
Students transported daily: 9,856
Schools served: 53
Staff: 200
Average driver wages: $13.99
Area of service: 50 square miles

Transporting nearly 10,000 students between home and school in an inner-city district is a difficult task for any operation. Traffic and road congestion, rundown streets, overcrowded schools and dangerous neighborhoods are just a few of the daunting obstacles facing school buses in such an environment. Add to that the responsibility of 58 special-needs routes (out of 160 total), as well as many more special-education students integrated onto regular school routes, and the challenges seem hard to bear. Yet, in these exact conditions, the transportation department at Kansas City Public Schools USD 500 has maintained an excellent safety record with very few accidents or discipline problems for quite some time.

If you ask George Taylor, director of transportation, he will tell you that the staff goes much further than merely completing their duties safely. "Our employees do their jobs with such a high degree of professionalism that it results in us having an excellent relationship with members of our community," he says. The staff also maintains a high level of workplace morale and often collaborates to provide service at the most economic cost to the school board, he adds.

USD 500's safety network starts with a corps of drivers who have spent considerable time honing their driving knowledge and skills. The operation’s in-house training program focuses on myriad topics including re-hashing CDL skills, thorough pre-trip inspections, defensive driving, railroad crossing safety, the loading/unloading process, in-depth special-needs student and equipment training, driving in inclement weather and also bus discipline procedures. Department safety awards are frequently given to drivers with the best track records, providing extra incentive. Their jobs are further aided by the presence of solid technology such as onboard video surveillance, child reminder systems and automated student routing software.

The next piece of the puzzle is a hard-working group of maintenance professionals who keep the fleet of school buses in peak shape. State highway patrol inspections are passed year after year with zero or very few defects. Says Taylor, "Our shop personnel understand that the high standards we set for ourselves in maintaining the fleet relate directly to the safety of the students we transport."



A reflection of its leader

Floyd County Schools, Martin

Buses: 91
Students transported daily: 3,801
Schools served: 18
Staff: 157
Average driver wages: $13.17

Saying Floyd County Schools Transportation Director Karen Johnson is industrious is, at best, selling her short of the truth. Johnson, who presented this summer at the 2003 Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) conference, takes on a host of responsibilities aside from running a successful and busy transportation department. Currently, she is regional director for the Kentucky Association for Pupil Transportation, delegate for the National Association for Pupil Transportation, member of the School Bus Design Advisory Board and member of the Bus Specifications Committee for the KDE. She also serves on the state School Bus Safety Poster Contest Committee.

But Johnson knows she can't do it all and recognizes that her work ethic is an extension of a total team effort. It’s not just her, she says, "everyone in this department is always willing to go the extra mile for students and to help fellow workers."

The operation emphasizes safety, training and a continuous pursuit of ways to improve. For example, this school year the department established a goal of reducing the number of stop-arm runners when buses are loading and unloading. Now drivers are taking down license numbers, and Johnson is personally taking information to the county attorney’s office and filing reports on offenders. Making training engaging and informative is another constant goal. "We are enhancing our school bus safety program for our students by adding a character — SpongeBob SquarePants — to our program with Buster the school bus, and we are also working on a puppet show," says Johnson.

Employees at Floyd County are being prepared with a regimented training program. In 2001, the department was recognized as having the most improved transportation training in the state. The department has one full-time, in-house driver trainer and five other KDE-certified trainers available when necessary. Mechanics are also highly qualified with multiple certifications. The extremely low vehicle breakdown rate reflects their skill level.

Though the success of the operation starts with the hard work and excellent leadership provided by Johnson, she is quick to point out the importance of getting everyone on the staff involved. "You have to encourage employees to do their best in whatever position they have," she says. "You also have to take time to say thank you for a job well done."



Creative cost-cutting methods

Bossier Parish Schools, Bossier City

Buses: 226
Students transported daily: 14,000
Schools served: 35
Staff: 278
Average driver wages: $14.00

District budget cuts have not only encouraged, but have required the transportation department at Bossier Parish to develop creative ways to keep the fleet running. With severely limited financial support, the department has spent the past three years improving the operation with inventive ideas that require few resources.

Clay Bohanan, supervisor of transportation, says he and his staff are always thinking of ways to ensure safety without raising costs. They have targeted areas where electronic devices are not absolutely necessary and focused on preventive maintenance to avoid potentially larger problems.

To ensure that drivers check the entire bus before and after a route, an electronic button that must be pressed is often installed at the rear of the bus. Bossier Parish uses a suction cup and a yellow "empty" sign that is taken down when students are loaded. "It's so simple, but it saves us quite a bit of money just doing that," Bohanan says.

In addition, most drivers run two routes instead of one, reducing the number of buses and employees needed. Buses are also inspected twice a year in an effort to identify problems in their early stages. Bohanan says the department has an outstanding maintenance record, considering the tight budget constraints imposed.

"The budget has been to the point where we had to go three years without purchasing any buses," says Bohanan. "Now we have a plan where we will start buying 15 buses a year to begin replacing the old ones in the fleet. For a while, we had to hold everything at a minimum as far as spending."

To overcome communication problems inherent in a large operation, the transportation department created "Busing Around," a newsletter sent to drivers, mechanics and attendants. Important dates, such as in-service training, back-to-school meetings and when to turn in buses are included so that employees are kept aware of what is happening in the district.

Ongoing training is provided to drivers throughout the year, focusing on current issues in the district. The growth of the city, located only a few miles from Shreveport, La., is the department’s biggest concern. Railroad crossings and traffic can significantly throw off the timing of a route, making scheduling a real challenge.



'The eyes of the community'

Maine School Administrative District 51, Cumberland

Buses: 27
Students transported daily: 2,300
Schools served: 8
Staff: 32
Area of service: 73 square miles
Average driver wages: $14.50

Bus drivers for MSAD 51 do much more than just drive school buses. They have organized their own community crime watch to look out for suspicious activity while on their daily routes.

Drivers are able to become familiar with families and houses and can often identify when something seems out of place, says Don Foster, transportation and property services director for the district. "We're kind of the eyes of the community," he says.

The crime watch stemmed from the department’s desire to provide a safe environment for children, both on and off the school bus. Drivers do not let students off if they don’t recognize the person or vehicle waiting at the stop.

This awareness has led to the arrest of several burglars throughout the years and even helped save the life of an elderly woman having a heart attack. An alert driver noticed the woman had passed out while driving and was able to radio for help.

Foster says the drivers care about the welfare of the community because they are local residents and because they always have the best interests of the students they transport in mind.

"I hear every day 'these are my kids' and 'I want to do this for my kids,'" Foster says. "Our drivers have a passion for what they do and they are always watching out for the children."

To keep the operation running smoothly, Foster encourages cooperation not only within his staff, but with other districts as well. If an area town is short a bus for a run, MSAD 51 will provide one, and when it needs an extra bus, other districts are willing to help.

"It's something the governor has said we need to start looking into," Foster says. "We've already been doing it, it has just been behind the scenes and nobody really knew about it."

In addition to incentives, Foster says one simple way to inspire drivers is to show that management cares and understands their job. "I go out and drive or ride with them," he says. "They love seeing me out there having to drive. That really is an effective way to boost morale."



The early bird catches the weather

Queen Anne's County Public Schools, Centreville

Buses: 88
Students transported daily: 7,600
Schools served: 12
Staff: 78
Average driver wages: $14.10

In a county that spans corn and soybean fields as well as a branch of the Chesapeake Bay, treacherous weather is a problem. The numerous fields often collect heavy fog, and snow and ice during winter months add to the challenge of transporting students at Queen Anne’s County Public Schools. To ensure maximum safety, the transportation staff has developed an elaborate, early-bird weather watch system.

Thad Kalmanowicz, director of operations, says his assistant begins the process each school day when he arrives to work at about 3:30 a.m. "If he senses any problems weather-wise, whether it be snow, ice or fog, he calls me early," says Kalmanowicz.

The two then contact state police and the sheriff’s department to gather feedback from officers on patrol throughout the county. Next, Kalmanowicz alerts 12 to 14 of his drivers, who drive about 20 minutes in their area and then report back on what they’ve seen.

"By 5:30 in the morning, we make a decision as to whether we’re on time or late, or if it’s snow or icy, whether we’re closed," says Kalmanowicz. "Because everything works so well, we’ve been fortunate to not have any serious weather-related accidents."

The organization of the staff at Queen Anne’s is also somewhat of an elaborate system. Included in the transportation operation are three limited liability corporations (LLCs), which each consist of various independent contractors that own one or more buses. The district owns 23 buses, which are used primarily for special education and extra-curricular activities, while the 65 contractor buses cover the regular-ed routes.

Coordinating such a widespread operation can be difficult, but Kalmanowicz says meeting with representatives of the LLCs several times a year and soliciting input from all the drivers has made the transportation a continuous success. The group often works together on finding ways to improve the operation, such as adjusting routes for higher efficiency.

As is the case in any complex operation, communication and strong working relationships are essential. "Everybody knows each other on a personal basis, and the principals work well with the contractors as well as the county drivers," says Kalmanowicz.

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