Jim Minihan, transportation supervisor at Katonah-Lewisboro School District in Westchester County, N.Y., doesn’t have much to complain about.

He’s got a waiting list of people who want to work for his department. Student behavior problems on his fleet of 95 buses are minimal. Families in his district are heavily involved in their children’s schooling and have one of the highest voter turnouts in the region.

But that’s not to say that he doesn’t have challenges.

“We’re getting into budget time,” Minihan says. “And because the public is very involved in the process, you have to be at the top of your game.”

At budget workshops, the public is invited to scrutinize and challenge the district’s proposals, putting all departments and their managers in the cross hairs.

“For transportation, they’re always looking for reduction of routes and personnel,” Minihan says. The trade-off, he counters, is that students will have to ride in buses that are more crowded and they’ll have to suffer through longer rides.

Minihan also argues that the transportation department doesn’t have much fat that can be trimmed. “We’re pretty tight right now,” he says.

In Martha’s backyard
The school district’s service area covers 58 square miles, including two towns and five villages, in Westchester County, just west of the Connecticut border.

It’s an area of suburban and rural affluence (Martha Stewart has owned a home in Katonah since 2000 and reportedly served her house arrest there). Hills, lakes and million-dollar homes are common features. “But we still have a number of dirt roads that buses have to navigate,” Minihan says.

Weather is generally not a problem for bus service, even in winter. “We budget for four snow days a year, but in the four years plus that I’ve been here, we only used all four snow days once,” Minihan says. “Normally, we have one or two snow days a year.”

The department employs approximately 100 drivers, all part-timers, and seven mechanics. Fourteen of the drivers are full-time district employees who also work as custodians for five or six hours a day.

Minihan, who came to Katonah-Lewis­boro from Lakeland Central School District, also in Westchester County, says he has the luxury of hiring drivers who already have their CDLs and some driving experience. “We don’t have to train people from scratch, but we do provide them with state-mandated 40 hours of pre-service training that includes vehicle familiarization and information about the district,” he says.

Although the department doesn’t suffer from a driver shortage, few staff members are spared from an occasional turn behind the steering wheel.

“All of the office staff are qualified to drive,” Minihan says. Only 10 people in the department — monitors and attendants — are not. Minihan covers routes about twice a month. Lately, the staff has been out on the road a bit more often. “A lot of people are coming down with the flu,” he says, “so we’ve been having to cover their routes.”

Fleet has solid footing
The department uses 95 buses — 51 Type D and 44 Type A models — to transport 4,500 students daily. Approximately 300 of the riders are transported to private schools. “It’s a New York state regulation that we have to provide service to private and parochial schools up to 15 miles,” Minihan explains.

Forty of the small buses were built by Girardin Minibus. “We buy them on the GM chassis,” Minihan says. “They’re really nice buses, well laid out.” He buys 18-passenger models with the Duramax diesel engine and air conditioning.

Minihan says his comfort level with the Girardins is high because he receives great support from the local dealer, Ramp Transportation, which has two service facilities in the area. “Service is a big issue with us,” he says. “If we have a problem, they deal with it right away.”

The fleet’s large buses were manufactured by Thomas Built Buses and are rear-engine models with Caterpillar engines.

Minihan says the fleet was switched over to ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) a year ahead of the federal government’s deadline because of the district’s concerns about protecting the environment. “We’ve had a strong green initiative here,” he says.

Before shifting over to ULSD, Minihan explained to the board that the fuel is more expensive than regular diesel and that he would have to increase his budget projections for fuel costs. “They never even questioned it,” he says.

Minihan says the district was already looking at alternative fuels when he took over the department four years ago. In addition to overseeing the move to ULSD, Minihan also applied for and received an EPA grant to retrofit its Type D buses with diesel particulate filters, which help to reduce tailpipe emissions. “Now the public realizes that we’re cutting edge in some areas,” he says.

Influence is statewide
Minihan has spent 16 years in school transportation. For the past 12 years, he’s been involved with the New York Association for Pupil Transportation (NYAPT) and now serves as its president.

Minihan says the position requires him to be involved in weekly conference calls with the executive board, monthly conference calls with the full board and quarterly meetings in Albany. Of course, there’s also the annual meeting.

But the sacrifice of his time is well worth it, Minihan says. “It’s great being able to make a difference on a statewide level,” he says. “That’s a really nice thing.”

What’s also nice is that he gets a preview of things to come and can apply them early at his district. “That’s one of the advantages of being president,” he says.

Another advantage is the impression it creates with district administrators. “They believe in professional organizations,” he says. “It’s a feather in our cap to have the president of the association at this district.”

With his NYAPT responsibilities taking some time away from his office duties, Minihan says he’s grateful that he has excellent departmental support. “The staff is our greatest strength — from the assistant superintendent all the way through the office staff to the mechanics to the drivers and to the attendants and monitors,” he says.

Steve Hirano is the former editor of SCHOOL BUS FLEET. He is the president of www.TransitTalent.com, an online job board for public transportation, and can be reached at steve.hirano@TransitTalent.com.