Directors Chris Ellison (left), Michael Shields, Pete Meslin and Peter Lawrence discuss issues impacting their departments and other school bus operations across the country.
School bus operations across the nation have been hit hard by budget cuts in recent years. While service reductions have been inevitable in many cases, pupil transporters are finding ways to become more efficient, stay relevant and keep yellow buses shuttling students safely.
This was made clear in a recent roundtable discussion with school transportation directors at the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) Summit in Portland, Ore., in November. SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon sat down with four prominent directors:
• Chris Ellison, director of transportation, Greater Albany (Ore.) Public Schools, and president of the Oregon Pupil Transportation Association (OPTA)
• Michael Shields, director of transportation, Salem-Keizer Public Schools, Salem, Ore.
• Pete Meslin, director of transportation, Newport-Mesa Unified School District, Costa Mesa, Calif.
• Peter Lawrence, director of transportation, Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District
Read on for their thoughts on a variety of issues, from bell times to bullying to student achievement.
SBF: Tell me about what's happening at your operations.
Peter Lawrence, director of transportation, Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District
PETER LAWRENCE: We're just finishing a capital project of about $43 million. Things are finally settling down with the construction. After the construction's done, hopefully next year, we'll be looking at realigning our bell times. We have very tight bell times in the afternoon, so we have inefficiently loaded buses, which is not only costly, but we're also feeling like the drivers are rushed. In the mornings we have plenty of time; in the afternoons, it's compressed.
We're also looking at full-day kindergarten, which most districts have. In my area in New York state, we have half-day kindergarten. We're looking at doing a study, and if it's approved this year, we'll probably start full-day kindergarten next year.
PETE MESLIN: You've probably been reading in the headlines that California has no money - not only no money, but negative money. In the current economic condition, some budgeted money is actually removed when the state releases its May budget revision. We've cut significant numbers of school teachers and support services. The challenge at this point is how to get ahead of that - how to be efficient enough that people realize that your service is still necessary and not a drain on the organization. We've been dealing with that as an ongoing challenge, and I'm not sure when we're going to come out of this economic trough.
The other visible change we've just completed is the installation of a CNG fueling station. We're converting our buses to CNG as we replace them, which has a significant impact on a variety of things - not just budget, but also the environment and the community. It's good, but it's a different way of doing business. It's complicated for our mechanics to learn new technology.
Have you gotten any kind of grants for the CNG buses?
Pete Meslin, director of transportation, Newport-Mesa Unified SchoolDistrict, Costa Mesa, Calif.
MESLIN: Yes, we have. Our air quality management district supports us in that regard. They don't buy the bus for us, but they buy down a fair share of it. They insist that we buy an alternative fuel vehicle. We're no longer able to buy diesel buses - even clean diesel - in Southern California.
LAWRENCE: We just received a grant for $204,000 for two diesel-electric hybrid buses, which we should get in April or May. We'll be the first in Monroe County to have that technology.
MICHAEL SHIELDS: As for what's happening in Salem-Keizer, the district passed an unprecedented large bond issue for school construction and deferred maintenance. It's $242 million, in one of the worst downturn economic periods in history. It's just phenomenal. We owe that to our executive leadership - the superintendent going out and building bridges with the community.
We've had huge gains in student achievement. Graduation rates are up and test scores are up, but we're still not meeting the level of achievement that we need to for students. So this year, they added graduation as part of student achievement in the mission statement. The dropout rates that we're experiencing across the United States have been a problem.
Last spring I was asked, as Peter was, to re-evaluate the bell times. Over the past two years, we cut $50 million out of the district budget. We're being told that next year's cuts will be $40 million to $50 million for our district. So there are lots of tentative issues. We cut out of our [transportation] budget $900,000 last year and another $300,000 the first budget go-round. This summer, we reduced another million. And this is without a lot of change in our service level. So we've got to re-evaluate our service level to try to consolidate costs, which is going to mean some tough questions that we're going to have to present to principals and parents. What should our service level be? Do we come out of the neighborhoods? Do we do main street pickups?
As a department head, I've been asked to review all of our policies and procedures as they were, and rewrite them and update them. We've also been preparing for internal audits. This is all part of the ISO process - the quality assurance management standards. They're followed by an external audit, where they hire an auditor to come in and review how we're doing and whether we're on track. Then every five years, the state of Oregon does an audit of the transportation systems, so we'll be doing that as well.
CHRIS ELLISON: I'm in quite a bit smaller of a district than the three other gentlemen. We're about a third of the size of Salem-Keizer. We're looking at beginning a capital project to replace our transportation facility and build a brand new facility. We're in the designing stages right now. Our current transportation facility, which is about 40 years old now, is in a highly desired area on just a little less than three acres for 70 school buses. So our neighbors really want our land. The district has a five-acre parcel, and they're looking at purchasing another five to six acres adjacent to it to make this work.
So that's first and foremost with Albany. Then on the operations side, we're still trying to figure out what route we're going to go with the SCR [selective catalytic reduction] or the Advanced EGR [exhaust gas recirculation]. You read a lot about them, but now what are the real-world results?