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September 01, 2004  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

The Transportation Manager's 2004-05 Survival Guide

The new school year has begun. How will you handle the stress of budget cuts, driver shortages, weather-related problems and student behavior? Transportation managers share their strategies for soldiering on when things fall apart.

by Albert Neal, Assistant Editor

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Not-so-precious cargo
Student behavior problems on school buses have received plenty of news coverage lately due to the outrageousness of some of the incidents. But hourly or daily reports would only begin to shed light on the seriousness of this issue for the transportation industry.

"The children today do things that were just unheard of 15 years ago," says Allen Prince, transportation director for Spartanburg (S.C.) School District #2. Prince has worked in transportation for 20 years, manages a fleet of 37 buses and remembers when his expanding district looked like Mayberry. Things have changed.

Prince had to hire nine monitors, who he rotates on different buses depending on where the behavior is most flagrant. He's also installed surveillance equipment on every bus. "That takes away some of the stress from our drivers," he says.

The Suwannee School District has allowed drivers to take matters into their own hands, somewhat. "We learned a long time ago that students have to understand that the bus driver is the adult in charge and has the authority to do something," says Mills. Suwannee drivers give students two to three warnings about their behavior before contacting the child's parents directly. Of course, Mills or another official must preauthorize the contact, but the process has been effective. Bus drivers can suspend students from the bus for one day. Now when drivers offer warnings, students listen. "Inconveniencing the parents gets the children's attention," says Mills.

A lot of stress comes from the discipline aspects, says Michael Bross, director of support services at Jefferson Schools in Monroe, Mich. "You have to take each kid for his or her own merits. Keep yourself removed from it and deal with the facts." Jefferson Schools bus drivers treat students similar to the way teachers treat them: act up in class and it's detention; act up on the school bus and you're off the bus. "It's a hard decision to make," says Bross, "but it's for the safety of all the student riders."

Budgetary tug-of-war
The bottom line is that few transportation operations have the kind of funding that makes everyone happy. Do what you can with what little you have is the rule of the day, but complacency is a no-no.

"They are revamping the state budget for Maine," says Joanne Woodworth, transportation manager at Maine School Administrative District #49 in Fairfield. "I've been waiting to see what happens, because we've been told they're cutting our budgets big time." Woodworth is concerned about the downsizing of her fleet and personnel, but she's been proactive with the help of her state association.

"We've begun to compile a folder that contains all of our transportation needs, so the people putting the budget together get an idea of what those needs are."

Things are much tighter for contractors. "Lately, we've had to personally guarantee everything," says Yamaguchi. "It's getting worse." Insurance companies are getting more selective about who they insure, and financial institutions are requiring that small contractors put up personal assets such as their homes to obtain financing. "School districts have different funding levels and revenue sources, whereas a contractor has to bear it all."

But it's not all roses at the school districts.

Bemidji School District has 85 district buses and six contracted school buses. Of the 85 district buses, 12 are Carpenters with bad roofs. "There's about 100 of them in the state," says Liedl, who recently appealed to the state board to have his Carpenters replaced. The senate proposed aid of about $30,000 per bus to be matched with funds from the district, but the state rejected the proposal. "The state didn't pass anything up here," says Liedl, "so I'll have to try again."

Several of Liedl's colleagues in Minnesota own and operate Carpenters that are well beyond their state-designated years-of-service mandates. He says they have no choice but to run the buses. "There are several of us using buses well into the 15th or 16th year," he says.

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