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April 01, 2006  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

How Small Operations Conquer Big Challenges

The challenges some smaller operations face can mirror those of larger operations. However, dealing with difficult routing scenarios, attendance issues or the expense of training materials for just a handful of drivers makes a huge difference.

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Whether it’s fuel costs, routing problems or staff shortages, pupil transportation operations across the U.S. have their hands full with day-to-day operational challenges. But when it comes to smaller, more rural districts, these same problems can appear monumental if not insurmountable.

Facing the challenge
Mesilla Valley Christian Schools (MVCS) in Las Cruces, N.M., transports approximately 500 students using a fleet of four buses. The private school district performs activity trips only. Drivers navigate desert terrain and some mountainous areas where, occasionally, there is snow. Currently, MVCS has a staff of six drivers.

John Foreman, superintendent at MVCS, says his greatest challenge is recruiting quality drivers. He handles the challenge by offering a competitive wage of $11 per hour. While MVCS can’t offer drivers a regular route, Foreman says that they earn more per hour than their counterparts at local public schools.

It has also been difficult to get affordable training materials at MVCS. “If I’m having a meeting with six people, it’s hard to go out and buy a video series for $495,” says Foreman. “That’s a lot of money for a small group and for a small school.”

To save on the cost of materials, Foreman searches the pages of trade magazines like SCHOOL BUS FLEET and shares resources with other districts whenever possible.

Similar to MVCS, Bloomfield-Mespo Local Schools in North Bloomfield, Ohio, has trouble recruiting substitute drivers to fill in for its staff of full-time drivers.

“People can’t get past the money part of it,” says Luci Eaton, transportation coordinator. Bloomfield pays its drivers $9 an hour, while the neighboring district pays $13. The district offers subs six hours of work a day.

Eaton tells new recruits that Bloomfield has fewer disciplinary problems on the school bus than larger neighboring districts, but she says this is hardly enough to lure new subs.

To make matters worse, new recruits must deal with a mandate stipulating that new drivers pursue CDLs through federal channels as opposed to a third-party school bus examiner. The rate for CDL examinations has increased to about $85 in Ohio.

More trials ahead
Darnese Nicholson is director of pupil transportation at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Gallaudet, which was one of SBF’s Great Fleets Across America in 2001, has a staff of 18 drivers that complete 11 runs daily for the deaf students at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School. The school, which is on the university campus, is a private entity receiving Congressional appropriation with oversight by the Department of Education.

Fuel costs, says Nicholson, are the department’s greatest challenge. “We burn an awful lot of fuel living in a largely metropolitan area,” she says. Few remedies exist for this common problem.

Last year, Nicholson and her mechanic applied unsuccessfully for a grant to have particulate filters installed on her fleet. “It was very disappointing,” she says. “We’re not a state school district and therefore did not qualify for the program, yet I purchase the same school buses as any school district.”

Although the experience left Nicholson a little disheartened, she has not lost hope. She recognizes the multiple benefits of air-quality programs and plans to reapply this year.

Balancing acts
Routing is the greatest challenge for Jeff Walker, transportation supervisor at the School District of Black River Falls (Wis.).

The school district is 500 square miles and includes hilly terrain. Thirty-two buses carry 1,700 students to five schools. The eastern part of the district is desolate. When a new student moves to this area, it can add 20-plus minutes to a route.

The northwest part of the district is hilly and has unpaved roads. This too requires extra time, especially during the winter. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade ride together, which is a challenge for some drivers who are used to transporting only elementary, middle or high school students.

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