With the snow-capped Rocky Mountains looming in the distance, a group of school bus operators and suppliers gathered near Denver in April to scale a range of imposing issues facing the industry at the 2016 School Bus eXchange (SBX).
The second edition of the event, held by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and School Bus Fleet, took place April 11 to 13 at the Omni Interlocken Hotel in Broomfield, Colorado.
About 30 public and private school transportation officials from around the country were selected to attend this year’s SBX. They met with each other and with representatives of more than two dozen companies that offer school buses or related equipment.
In a series of roundtables, attendees shared solutions for common challenges, including school bus driver shortage and stop-arm running.
As the event kicked off, Rob Webber, chief operating officer of local school district Adams 12 Five Star Schools, welcomed the SBX group to the area and gave an overview of his district, which runs a fleet of 163 school buses.
Webber also chronicled the district’s efforts to build a new transportation facility, which replaced an outdated and outgrown building from 1969.
The following evening, attendees got to take a tour of the new Adams 12 facility, which the transportation team moved into in 2010. The state-of-the-art, $20 million building has features to reduce energy use, such as extra insulation, numerous skylights, and heated shop floors.
Roundtable discussions were one of the interactive activities on the SBX agenda.
Attendees were presented with questions on such topics as alternative fuels, school bus driver recruitment and retention, federal regulations, fleet replacement, and budget management. As they discussed those issues, they wrote key points with multicolored markers on paper tablecloths.
Many participants gave input on their experiences with school bus driver shortage, which has been a top challenge for the industry in recent years. Some emphasized the importance of recognizing good drivers to boost retention. Ideas on that front included awards, cash incentives, departmental picnics, and safety competitions.
“We’re giving our drivers nice jackets for perfect attendance,” said Monica Coburn, transportation director for Indianapolis Public Schools.
Illegal passing of school buses emerged as another top challenge. Roundtable participants discussed the effectiveness of stop-arm cameras, public awareness campaigns, and other efforts to combat the problem.
One of the questions posed was why motorists drive past stopped school buses. In some cases, distraction or ignorance may be causes, but Lon Waterman, director of transportation services for North Kansas City (Mo.) Schools, said that illegal passing of school buses is typically a conscious decision.
“Everyone knows that a stop sign means stop,” Waterman said. “People know the law. They’re in a hurry and distracted.”
Cobb County (Ga.) School District has seen success in curbing illegal passing with a stop-arm camera program and a corresponding public awareness campaign. That includes a transportation mascot, Hawkeye, who appears at school events and promotes stop-arm safety.
“We’ve reduced violations from 1,800 to 900 [per year],” said Rick Grisham, Cobb County’s executive director of transportation.
Informing the community
At one table, attendees shared tips for enhancing the public’s understanding of school bus transportation. Ideas included attending community events, parking a bus at a mall and handing out safety information, holding Love the Bus celebrations, making use of resources from the American School Bus Council, and engaging in social media.
“We use Facebook a lot,” said Michael Taylor, executive director for transportation and growth planning services at Johnston County (N.C.) Schools. “It gives parents a notification. You don’t have to go searching for us.”
Other methods of providing timely school bus updates to parents include Twitter, Blackboard Connect (a mass notification service), and robo calls.
The discussion also delved into best practices for using social media. The consensus was that while it can be an effective communication tool, problems can arise, and it helps to have a designated staff member to monitor the social media accounts and to post the updates.
Fuel choices were the focus of discussion at another table. School bus operators shared what they see as the advantages of diesel, gasoline, propane, and compressed natural gas (CNG). Some suggested that geographical factors can influence fuel decisions.
For Matt Bryant, director of transportation at Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colorado, the abundance of natural gas in his state makes CNG an appealing option.
“We’re looking at CNG because it’s more stable in price,” Bryant said. “Here in Colorado, we have a surplus of natural gas. ... But it may not be the same in your part of the country.”
For Alvin (Texas) Independent School District (ISD), propane is more economical.
“In Texas, we’re paying 56 cents a gallon for propane, with a federal rebate of 50 cents per gallon,” said Jim Abney, director of transportation and safety for Alvin ISD, also noting the fuel’s convenience in maintenance. “With propane, you can use your shop as is. With CNG, there are so many safety issues and requirements for your shop.”
Another key SBX activity was one-on-one consultations. School bus operators had scheduled time to meet with suppliers. The format fostered discussions of how the suppliers’ products or services might be able to help with the specific challenges that the operators are experiencing.
Suppliers also got a chance to give group presentations, and many of them participated in the roundtables.
The school bus operators received full scholarships to attend SBX for free, while suppliers served as hosts.
The dates and location of next year’s School Bus eXchange will be announced in the coming months.