Cherokee County is situated at the base of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountain chains and is considered part of Metro Atlanta. Ken Johnson describes the southern part of the county as suburban with a dense population, as it is the portion closest to Atlanta. The northern half is more rural and comprises small farms and single-family homes.
“Many of our routes will make three or four stops and have a load of 60, where in the northern part of the county, they will travel close to an hour to pick up a load of children,” he says.
Johnson has been an employee of Cherokee County Schools for 28 years, but he only recently became involved in pupil transportation. Previously, he was a teacher and an elementary school principal. He became transportation director about a year ago.
“It’s really been an easy transition, since I’m familiar with the county and most of the personnel,” Johnson says.
Cherokee County’s pupil transportation department serves all 38 of the district’s schools, transporting 27,000 students daily and racking up about 4 million miles annually.
Fleet doubles to handle growth
All of Cherokee County’s 449 school buses are Type C, and through the district’s bid process, the transportation department has acquired buses from Blue Bird Corp., IC Bus and Thomas Built Buses. The fleet has doubled in size over the past 10 years to accommodate a growing population. “Just since I’ve been here, we’ve seen an increase,” Johnson says.
The district recently purchased 40 buses to replace some older models and to prepare for anticipated growth. Due to economic factors in the housing market, growth has slowed in recent months. However, “We know that in the very near future we’ll see those students start to return,” he says.
Over the past few years, Cherokee County has been adding Thomas Built C2 buses to its fleet.
“We purchased some of the first C2s, and Thomas and [dealer] Peach State Freightliner made a commitment to listen to the customer, and as a result, the design has improved,” Johnson says.
Qualities that have led the district to purchase C2s over the last two years include the sleek, aerodynamic design, good visibility from the driver compartment, maneuverability and reliability.
“The technicians find it easy to perform maintenance and repair,” Johnson says. In addition, Johnson says Cherokee County students and drivers like the C2. “We take low bids on all of our buses, and the C2 has been the best value for our dollar,” he says.
Bolstering the operation
Cherokee County Schools’ basic management philosophy district-wide, Johnson says, is to do what’s best for students and all decisions made in transportation are based on that premise. It also informs the department’s daily operations and the training that drivers and other staff receive.
“We try to equip our people and allow them to function in a professional way by giving them the best training available, good equipment and good support,” Johnson says. “Then we set expectations and we give them some latitude to do their job.”
In the realm of budgeting, Johnson says that expenditures are thoroughly reviewed each year. “Just because we were doing something in the past doesn’t mean we’re going to continue to. We want to make sure that it is money well spent,” he says.
One item that may be added in the upcoming budget year, though, is a GPS system to enhance student safety in case of an accident or mechanical breakdown involving one of the buses. In addition, the district is not currently running any of the buses on alternative fuels, but Johnson is interested in pursuing use of alternative fuels for the future.
“In our particular area, a consistent supply of biodiesel has been a little bit of a challenge, but we’ve looked at some of the hybrid buses that are coming online that would certainly be appealing to us for some of our routes,” he says. He has also visited other sites currently operating buses on natural gas and propane to see if either would be a viable fuel choice for Cherokee County.
Programs promote drivers
One of the programs Johnson is particularly proud of is the advanced driver training program he implemented with the support of Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo, whose leadership Johnson credits with the success of the program.
All drivers at Cherokee County Schools take required CPR, first aid and student management courses. But every month, the transportation department offers at least 10 additional classes in such topics as defensive driving or emergency response. Drivers can attend sessions between or after their routes. In the past year, the 78 classes offered have had a total of 1,124 attendances.
“As [drivers] accumulate hours, they are able to advance into a different step on their salary schedule, and that has really helped in attracting and retaining good employees,” Johnson says.
The transportation department also recognizes exemplary employees each year. If employees have one or zero days of absence and a satisfactory overall evaluation, they receive a jacket at the department’s annual recognition luncheon. The driver evaluation looks at on-the-road performance, student management, and care and maintenance of the bus. Johnson reports that about 60 drivers will be recognized as exemplary employees this year.
Drivers with perfect attendance records also have the opportunity to drive the newest buses each year. During the luncheon, they each receive a bus key. The driver with the key that starts the bus will get to drive the new bus on his or her route. “It’s kind of a fun thing,” Johnson says, “and we know the best person to have on that bus is a regular route driver who’s on the bus every day.”