Several hundred kids sat cross-legged on the floor of their school’s multi-purpose room, their eyes fixed on the woman who stood before them with a microphone in her hand.
At this moment, it wasn’t their principal or a teacher who held the elementary students’ attention. It was Elk Grove Unified School District’s (USD’s) director of transportation, Jill Gayaldo — perhaps better known to the youngsters as the lady in charge of their school buses.
The students — along with various elected officials, pupil transportation leaders, and other dignitaries — were gathered at Cosumnes River Elementary School in rural Sloughhouse, California, for the American School Bus Council’s Love the Bus main event on Feb. 19.
After bus-loving speeches by U.S. Congressman Ami Bera and EPA Region 9 Administrator Jared Blumenfeld, Gayaldo surprised the students by announcing that her department would reward their “Love the Bus” spirit with a field trip to a destination of their choosing — “wherever you guys want to go,” Gayaldo told the crowd, eliciting a symphony of squeals.
The scene illustrated the Elk Grove transportation department’s drive to serve the district’s students, with the yellow bus representing an essential component of their education — taking them not just to school, but also to other learning experiences in the world beyond.
It was this commitment to safe student transportation — as well as enhancing educational opportunities and reducing emissions — that led the American School Bus Council to honor Elk Grove USD with the council’s School Bus Champion Award. Elk Grove Superintendent Chris Hoffman accepted the award for the district during the Love the Bus event, and he highlighted Gayaldo’s work in running an exemplary transportation operation.
“She does an absolutely phenomenal job,” Hoffman said, adding that the district’s buses transport students 2.7 million miles per year. “Because of that, our kids are as safe as possible.”
Big growth ahead
Elk Grove USD is the fifth-largest district in California by enrollment, and it’s poised to get even bigger. The district currently operates 61 schools, with a projected 52 more to be built over the next 20 years.
“We’re back in growth mode,” Gayaldo says.
In her office, Gayaldo points to a map that shows new housing tracts — in other words, new areas of service for her buses — that not long ago were undeveloped.
“We’re a third of Sacramento County. There’s a lot of room to build houses,” Gayaldo says. “There are constant changes.”
The district encompasses 320 square miles, serving about a dozen communities. That includes part of California’s capital city, Sacramento, and small towns out in the country like Sloughhouse.
Elk Grove USD’s transportation department runs 160 routes, transporting a daily total of about 10,000 students, 75% of whom have special needs. About 55% of the district’s students are from low-income families.
Funds for fleet
Funding shortfalls around the time of the Great Recession in the last decade forced Elk Grove USD to put off the purchasing of new school buses for several years.
Now, with the financial situation having improved, the district is making strides in replacing the oldest buses in its fleet. There are 10 remaining that date back to the 1990-92 model years, which Gayaldo said she hopes to replace soon.
Reducing emissions has been a priority. Elk Grove USD has retrofitted its older diesel buses with particulate filters and has shifted to alternative fuels for its newer models.
This school year, Elk Grove purchased a propane-powered school bus and, based on its performance, plans to buy 20 more. Also, 25 of the district’s 200 buses run on compressed natural gas.
Elk Grove’s new school buses have a variety of additional equipment on board, including GPS, video surveillance systems, lap-shoulder belts and wheelchair lifts.
“Everything we buy has a wheelchair lift,” Gayaldo notes. “We really want [the students who use wheelchairs] to ride with their peers.”
Seat belt performance
The seat belts on Elk Grove USD’s school buses are required by California law — currently the only effective state mandate for lap-shoulder belts on large school buses.
Those three-point restraints were recently put to the test. On Oct. 14, a large motorhome that was towing an SUV ran a red light at about 42 mph, according to the California Highway Patrol, and broadsided an Elk Grove Type A school bus. The motorhome made a massive impression in the side of the bus.
The four special-needs students on the bus were buckled up. One of them was sitting right by the point of impact. The students, all of whom are nonverbal, were taken to the hospital for examination, but no injuries were found.
For Gayaldo, the crash confirmed the effectiveness of the lap-shoulder seat belts.
“When you watch the [bus surveillance] video, especially in slow motion, I just don’t want to think what would have happened if they hadn’t had belts,” Gayaldo says. “That’s why we have belts. … This was clear to me of the additional benefit of adding those on.”
With the nation’s unemployment rate having declined in recent years, many school bus operations have had a harder time recruiting school bus drivers (see February 2016 issue, pg. 6). In School Bus Fleet’s 2015 School District Survey, 92% of respondents reported having some degree of driver shortage.
Elk Grove USD is no exception. The transportation department needs about 20 more school bus drivers — or 13% more than the current 160 drivers — to be fully staffed.
“We have a great fleet and great drivers — we just need more drivers,” Gayaldo says.
On that front, Gayaldo recently met with Elk Grove USD’s human resources personnel to discuss plans for a job fair specifically for transportation, possibly including neighboring school districts.
Gayaldo says that Elk Grove is also looking into the possibility of paying new driver trainees during the long training process. “When you have six to eight weeks without a paycheck, people can’t really do that,” she says.
Another common challenge in recruiting school bus drivers is that the job often doesn’t offer enough hours for some people. But that’s not the case at Elk Grove.
With many of the district’s schools operating during the summer, all of the transportation department’s staff members — including the drivers — work year-round. (Drivers bid for vacation time during the year.)
Also, drivers can pick up extra hours by taking on activity and athletic trips. “There’s always plenty of work,” Gayaldo says.
“Everything we buy has a wheelchair lift. We really want [the students who use wheelchairs] to ride with their peers.” Jill Gayaldo, Director of Transportation, Elk Grove USD
Staff and shop
The Elk Grove USD transportation department employs about 200 people, with 40 office and shop staff members in addition to the 160 school bus drivers. All of the department’s supervisors are also driver instructors, and there are two full-time instructors, for a total of six.
The shop operates on two shifts: a day shift and a swing shift. The crew maintains the 200-bus fleet and another 325 district vehicles. That includes cars for the district’s own police force.
Gayaldo notes how the technicians’ work has changed in recent years with computerized diagnostics and more technology on school buses.
“They need to be able to turn a wrench and run a laptop,” she says.
Gayaldo has worked for Elk Grove USD for 10 of her 30 years in the pupil transportation field. She began her career in 1986 as secretary for the transportation department at San Juan USD, another Sacramento-area district.
After moving up in the ranks at San Juan USD during her 14 years there, Gayaldo took on the director of transportation position at Rocklin USD. Six years later, she came to Elk Grove in the director role.
Gayaldo’s father, Jack Graviet, also worked in student transportation — although it was after his daughter’s career began. When Graviet retired as a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, he served as director of transportation for Davis School District in Farmington, Utah.
Gayaldo isn’t the only one at her operation who has family connections in pupil transportation. Among the Elk Grove transportation team members are married couples, in-laws and other relatives.
“We have a lot of families here,” Gayaldo says.
Promoting their own
“Family” also applies to the transportation team in a more figurative sense. Walking through the facility, one sees the camaraderie among drivers eating lunch and laughing together in the lounge, among technicians collaborating in the shop, and among office staffers talking over cubicle walls.
Gayaldo notes that her department focuses on recruiting in-house, giving drivers opportunities to advance in their careers. For example, Stephonia Spivey — who was named Elk Grove USD’s school bus driver of the year and was recognized at the Love the Bus event — was recently promoted to instructor. This summer, Spivey will attend a state academy to get her full instructor certification through the California Department of Education and the California Highway Patrol.
Elk Grove also encourages wellness among its drivers and other transportation staff members. One room of the facility has been turned into a gym, with elliptical machines, a treadmill, weights and other exercise equipment on hand.
Elk Grove also recently supported another fitness endeavor: The transportation department dispatched 72 school buses to transport runners for the California International Marathon in December. A hat from the event sits in Gayaldo’s office amid a sizable display of school bus bric-a-brac.
As Gayaldo’s announcement at Cosumnes River Elementary suggested, field trips are a significant part of Elk Grove USD’s transportation service.
Out of the district’s total 160 school bus drivers, seven are full-time field trip drivers. The transportation department also has one full-time staff member for booking field trips.
Last school year, Elk Grove shuttled students on some 6,000 activity and athletic trips. The transportation department expects to exceed that number by the end of this year.
School buses are predominantly used for the trips, although some small groups, such as the golf team, are transported in district vans.
As of press time, Gayaldo said that the Cosumnes students hadn’t yet chosen the destination for their excursion. Wherever they end up going, it will take a small fleet of yellow buses to carry all 500 or so of the school’s students.
“For kids to succeed, they’ve got to get there,” Gayaldo says, “there” including not just school, but also the museum or the track meet, for example. “We’re happy to provide our piece.”