With the new year approaching, SBF interviewed Linda Burtwistle, president of North America’s largest school bus contractor, First Student Inc., in December to get her outlook on industry issues for 2011. She also discusses recent developments with the company.

SBF: What do you see as the top issues for the school bus industry in 2011?
LINDA BURTWISTLE: School districts around the country are facing funding and budgetary constraints, and as a service provider we have the opportunity to work with our partners to create efficiencies and identify savings. Outsourcing transportation can help districts focus their resources on the core function of education, which is necessary in these challenging economic times.

In addition, we as an industry are constantly focused on the safety of our operations. Statistics show that taking the school bus is the safest way for students to get to and from school, but we can always improve. From inspections and training to daily home-to-school travel and weekend charter activity, we must always be focused on safe and secure operation.

Any thoughts on how the new Congress might impact the industry?
Recent elections have stressed the importance of prudent spending across all areas of business and government. School districts are challenged to do more with less, which challenges us to help them find solutions that will enable them to operate even more efficiently.

Are there any new initiatives that First Student is undertaking this year?
With safety as our core value, we are continually striving for zero incidents across the company. Our internal First to Zero safety program allows us to focus on best practices and spotlight those locations who have demonstrated safety excellence.

We are committed to growing and expanding our charter program. Charters are a hidden gem for us — they are a safe, cost-effective mode of transportation for customers and a valuable revenue source for our business. New marketing materials and charter manager training will help us better communicate our service to current and prospective clients.

We are streamlining our internal processes to operate at maximum efficiency. In addition, we are focusing on our local managers to ensure they have the tools and resources necessary for operation.

First Student recently acquired Star Shuttle Co., a school and charter transportation services provider in New Jersey. With transitions like this, what are some of the key challenges?
Our focus with any acquisition is on the employees. We strive to make the transition as seamless as possible for each new employee, ensuring they receive the training and information necessary, while maintaining their local culture and camaraderie. We are also focused on getting to know the new customers, students and parents. Our commitment to safe and secure transportation is core to any service, and we need to make sure this is communicated.

What kind of equipment is First Student spec’ing on its new buses?
Our commitment to safety is seen on each of our buses, both new and existing. Each bus includes technology such as Child Check-Mate and GPS that ensure the safety and security of students on board. New buses include high-vis yellow handrails, and existing buses are retrofitted with durable high-vis tape. We are also focused on fuel efficiency and utilize technology on each bus that reduces idling.

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