Today, budgets are on the minds of pupil transporters just as much as transporting students safely. It’s no exception for the transportation team at the School District of Manatee County in Bradenton, Fla.
“The No. 2 item on our school district’s budget is the cost of fuel, so that has a large influence on what we purchase and how we operate it,” Director of Vehicle Maintenance Don Ross says of purchasing new school buses.
With the district’s most recent bus purchases, a combination of their fuel economy, providing training to help the drivers efficiently operate the buses, and route reorganization have saved the district about $400,000.
Veteran in vehicle management, maintenance
Ross has worked at the School District of Manatee County for 14 years. He was hired as the shop manager, where he oversaw all of the technicians, and he was then promoted to supervisor. For the last seven years, he’s served as the director of vehicle maintenance.
Ross’ career has long involved vehicles and heavy equipment. He has heavy equipment certification as a journeyman mechanic, and prior to joining the School District of Manatee County he worked in Michigan for a Fortune 500 company.
“I started as a manager and moved up to area manager, overseeing 14 locations across the U.S.,” Ross explains. “I was in charge of all of their mobile heavy equipment from all over the world.”
Craving a warmer climate, Ross relocated from Michigan to Florida after 17 years with the company.
He says when the opening became available at the School District of Manatee County, he applied because “it looked to be a very challenging and rewarding career.”
Communication is a top priority
Ross’ technicians maintain 217 school buses, and the bus drivers transport 15,500 students safely to and from approximately 60 schools. Ross says communication among the 290 staff members in the transportation department has been essential to this, and it also enables everyone to do their jobs in a cost-effective manner.
For example, Ross has worked with the technicians to help them understand that even though it’s hot during the summer months, they can’t perform tasks like seat repairs with the bus’ air conditioner on because it burns fuel, which necessitates more frequent oil changes and, ultimately, additional costs.
The maintenance team also tracks its service with the help of a 12x12 dashboard that’s hanging in the shop. Ross says the board displays the status of all the school buses, and when a driver calls in a problem from the road, a light begins to blink on the board and a clock starts to monitor the response time.
The techs are trained to get a spare bus to the driver’s location, and once students are transferred to the operable bus, the clock stops.
“When the [malfunctioning] bus comes into the shop, we have a team that reviews the situation: why the bus broke down, when was it last in the shop, what was the problem and what was the resolution, and what can we do to keep this from happening again,” Ross explains. “We do that with all of our road calls.”
Fuel-efficient buses promise cost savings
All of the buses in the school district’s fleet are diesel-powered, and they are all equipped with video surveillance cameras, seat belts and air conditioning.
Forty-eight of the buses are Thomas Built Buses Saf-T-Liner C2 units with SCR technology. The district is in its second year of running these buses, which replaced older rear-engine (RE) Thomas Built units.
“The C2s came in, and we compared them to our older buses, the REs, which were getting 5 to 5.5 miles per gallon,” Ross says. “When the C2s first hit the road, we were averaging 7 to 7.75 miles per gallon. Now, with some additional driver training and route reconstruction, we have some of the C2s averaging about 10 miles per gallon. Our anticipation of fuel recovery from the new buses is just shy of $250,000.”
More training for drivers
Ross says the C2s come with standards that the team had to take time to understand, and that the drivers had to be trained on.
“On some of our older buses, we had to accelerate 100% in order to get them going,” he explains. “With the new C2s’ quicker acceleration response, the drivers can feather the accelerator rather than push it into the floor. Along with that, there’s an ‘economy’ button that allows the driver to save fuel another way. If the economy button is engaged, that means that they drive normally and it limits the amount of RPMs between shifts.
When the economy button is disengaged, you utilize fuel to get up to the RPMs more quickly. With the faster acceleration response, we found that the C2 allows you to run with the fuel economy button on, therefore saving fuel.”
In another effort to save fuel and reduce costs, last year, the transportation team at Manatee County tracked how many buses the drivers were idling for more than 10 minutes in a given day.
“We had over 250 items that were registered over 10 minutes, so we had training with our drivers, and our goal was to reduce idling by 50%,” Ross says. “That 50% equals about $150,000.”
Ross says that the School District of Manatee County’s transportation department has a good working relationship with Thomas Built Buses and Thomas’ dealer in Orlando, Fla. — Matthews Buses Inc. — which has benefitted the district.
When the district was considering which buses to purchase two years ago, staff members traveled to the Thomas plant where the C2s are built and spoke with the engineers and met the staff.
“We also talked to some of the customers who had purchased the buses in prior years, and everyone was very positive,” Ross says. “That played a large part in our decision making, along with the potential of saving fuel.”
As part of the agreement in purchasing the 48 Saf-T-Liner C2s, there’s a technician from the dealership who’s certified to work on Thomas Built units, and who is stationed at the school district’s shop.
“Our Matthews tech handles 100% of the warranty items on all 48 buses, completes all warranty paperwork and obtains parts,” Ross says. “This partnership has had a positive impact on our parts inventory, parts management and the timing of repairs. In the past, Manatee would have had several techs trained, and would handle warranty items and parts procurement, inventory increases and added training. Now, our techs are in training for the future at no expense to the district. With reduced budgets, along with a 25% reduction in staff, we are very satisfied with both Thomas Built and Matthews Buses for providing in-house support.”