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

Giant Challenges for Giant Fleets

Managing a large school bus fleet presents special challenges. What are those challenges and how are they handled? Transportation directors at giant fleets provide their insights.

by Steve Hirano, Editor

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Managing a school transportation operation with more than, say, 200 buses can offer extreme challenges.

First, the sheer size of the operation can be intimidating. Not only are there hundreds of buses and employees to manage, but the director also has to oversee a budget that can run well into the millions. Headaches are more plentiful, too, especially with so many students, parents, teachers and site administrators to satisfy.

“It seems the larger you get, the more complicated things become,”says John Matthews, transportation director at Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, which operates more than 1,100 route buses daily to transport 96,000 students. “All problems are multiplied,”he says.

The challenges to effectively managing a large fleet are many. Staying focused on the big picture while never ignoring the details is critical. Creating a team atmosphere by maintaining a visible presence is also important. So is putting together a loyal, dedicated staff of supervisors.

To address these and other challenges, we interviewed more than a dozen transportation directors at large school district fleets. In many cases, their insights are applicable to fleets of all sizes.

“Large or small, we all face the same challenges,”says Alexandra Robinson, transportation director at San Diego Unified School District. Her operation transports more than 22,000 students daily using nearly 580 buses. “Being visible, aware and approachable is definitely helpful,”she adds.

Stay in touch
The logistical difficulty of communicating with hundreds (or thousands) of employees can be immense in a big fleet. Certainly, a transportation director would not be expected to know every employee’s name, but he or she would be expected to maintain an efficient two-way communication flow, either through assistants or other means.

“It’s all about communication,”says Linda Farbry, transportation director at Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools, which operates nearly 1,300 buses and transports more than 127,000 students.

Farbry admits, however, that communication from drivers has to go through many layers to reach her. She relies on her managers to convey concerns from drivers, which requires that these supervisors meet regularly with their charges. “This is extremely difficult in a period of severe driver shortage when the supervisors are covering as many runs as the drivers are, in addition to many hours of administrative work,”she says.

To facilitate communication, Farbry says the twice-yearly driver in-service sessions exceed the length required by the state “so we can provide additional information and guidance, some humor, a little food and some small door prizes for the drivers and attendants. Networking time allows us to mingle and speak directly to employees.”

“Communicating with 600-plus drivers, 120-plus assistants, garage staff, supervisory staff and others is a challenge,”says David Pace, transportation director at Virginia Beach (Va.) City Public Schools, which operates more than 600 buses daily for route service and transports more than 66,000 students. “We must be creative in our newsletter, two-way radio communications and employee input meetings.”

Rafael Salazar, transportation director at Northside Independent School District in Helotes, Texas, holds a monthly forum in which drivers can address issues and encourages supervisors at the district’s four transportation sites to have an open-door policy. “Finally, we spend time in the drivers lounge speaking with driving staff daily,”he says. His district operates 550 route buses serving 39,000 students daily.

Wandering, with a purpose
Montgomery County’s Matthews stays in touch with his employees by getting out of his office. “Spend time with staff, even if all you do is MBWA (management by wandering around),”he says.

Matthews also recommends getting your hands dirty. “Turn a wrench now and then, just for the fun of it,”he says. “Or you can pump fuel at the bus garage or stop off at the morning layover where drivers gather and buy them a cup of coffee. It goes a long way to building relationships.”

Many directors rely on their supervisors to maintain a personal connection with drivers, assistants and other employees.

“A large operation must rely on its supervisors and managers to provide feedback — good and bad — to prepare for and address issues at upper levels,”says Karen Strickland, general manager of transportation at Hillsborough County (Fla.) School District, which uses more than 1,110 route buses to transport 92,000 students. “I expect our supervisors to keep me informed, but it’s also important for the director to talk with drivers in places they are comfortable, such as drivers lounge, on their bus or in the parking lot.”

It’s also important to stay in touch with labor representatives. John Lombardi, transportation director at the School District of Philadelphia, says monthly industrial meetings help to keep him abreast of issues. “Meeting with union representatives can be a very effective method of heading off problems before they become major issues,”he says. His department uses a combination of 1,300 public and contractor buses to transport 37,000 students.

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