No-cost option for communication upgrade

Radios with telephone capabilities in addition to two-way function are used in an innovative communication program at Jefferson County Schools in Birmingham, Ala.

The system was purchased to replace traditional two-way radios and initially cost the district $160,000 a year. When Transportation Director Stephen Cain joined the department, he saw an opportunity to reduce costs without negatively affecting service.

Cain contacted Southern LINC, the telephone company that provides the service, and proposed a deal that would give radios to the department’s staff at no cost in return for advertising on the district’s buses.

Department supervisors now receive the latest radio technology, complete with local and long-distance calling capabilities, data service for e-mail and Internet access, voice-mail and even GPS.

In addition, every mechanic and bus has a unit for two-way calling as well as contacting 911 in an emergency. The system allows all staff members to be in contact, and drivers can be reached individually or as a group with a single call.

In exchange for free service, bumper stickers identifying the service provider are placed on each bus and department vehicle. This agreement has saved the district approximately $16,000 since June, according to Cain.

The system proved its value when bad weather hit last spring and affected school dismissals. Cain says he was able to communicate with all drivers and schools right away so everyone would be informed and then contact individuals concerning specific school dismissals.

“This was a real lifesaver since many schools lost complete power,” says Cain. “Not having our Southern LINC system could have put many drivers and students in a very serious situation.”

The idea to ask for free service came from an experience Cain had in another county, where a local cellular company provided free cellular phones for the fleet. Southern LINC was very interested in the proposal from the beginning, Cain says.

The telephone company is able to advertise on more than 400 vehicles that are seen throughout the county on a daily basis. “It appears to be a win-win situation. We can now have complete confidence in our communication system while at the same time save money for the people in Jefferson County,” says Cain.


Routing consolidation produces savings

Marion County Public Schools in Ocala, Fla., learned that less could be more after reducing its scheduling department from four sites to one centralized location.

Transportation Coordinator Bobbie Engelhardt says that with the help of routing software, scheduling buses is a much more manageable task. As a result, the department was able to eliminate one staff position and use the extra office space for training and other meetings.

Engelhardt says zone coordinators who were once preoccupied with creating and modifying routes now are able to spend more one-on-one time with drivers. This has improved training procedures and communication, she says.

The department has utilized other features of the software, including the ability to post driver files on the Internet. Parents can research their child’s driver for training history and work experience.

Beginning in January, faculty members can reserve buses for field trips via the Web. This is expected to help with the organization of trips and will allow teachers to see when buses are available.

Reports are accessed through the software to ensure that routes are planned efficiently and that students’ time on the bus is reasonable. Oversights are common when multiple people are designing routes independently of each other, says Engelhardt.

“[Routing software] has saved us a lot of time and manpower,” says Engelhardt. “It has freed up our staff to concentrate more in areas of safety and training, which are really important.


Additional duties help drivers, dispatchers thrive

The transportation staff at Portland (Ore.) Public Schools has shown it can manage a range of responsibilities beyond basic job requirements to make the entire operation run more efficiently.

Bryan Winchester, director of student transportation, says he saw areas that could be more effectively operated when he arrived in the district in 2002. With annual turnover rates at less than 5 percent, a staff of full-time trainers wasn’t necessary.

Instead, drivers are recruited to train between routes, a move that has positively affected morale and increased everyone’s knowledge of training procedures, says Winchester.

“The drivers are really engaged now, and they are part of most major decisions within the district,” Winchester says. “My philosophy is if you give people more responsibility, they will rise to the challenge.”

The department has made as many internal consolidations as possible to prevent cuts in service or safety procedures. The phone system was upgraded to eliminate the need for an operator in favor of an automated voice-mail program.

Dispatchers are also involved in the job-sharing approach by taking on more responsibilities concerning record keeping and reporting. So far, the reorganization of the department has saved the district $200,000, says Winchester.

Winchester also saw an opportunity to improve how special-needs children are transported before they are mainstreamed onto a regular school bus. Taxis are used to take special-needs students to and from school until a route can be modified for them and for students whose disabilities prevent them from riding on a bus.

The district now offers to either pay parents of special-needs children who drive them to school themselves or buy a city bus pass for the student and parent in an effort to reduce the number of taxis used until bus service can be arranged.

The results of the program have been better than expected, Winchester says. Parents have been receptive to the added interest taken in their children, and finding alternatives to taxis has saved more than $500,000.

Bus stop updates posted on Website

The Internet has proved to be a valuable tool for enhancing service in many industries, including student transportation. Newport News Public Schools in eastern Virginia uses the Web to post bus stop information with daily updates.

The department decided to use a Web-enabled routing and scheduling system because of the frequent changes that have to be made and the number of questions received regarding bus runs.

Frank Lebrecque, transportation director, says the need became clear when routes published in the local paper were already obsolete before they were distributed. The high concentration of military bases in the area creates a fluid community with students entering the district throughout the year.

Access to the Web browser is not limited to people in the district, a feature Lebrecque says is unique compared to other programs he has seen. “Parents can see stops and bus routes before they ever move here. It can help them be even more prepared for a move,” he says.

The software shows bus stops as close as three-tenths of a mile from a given address and the route the bus will take before and after the stop.

School secretaries who have to find the correct bus for children each day have been receptive to the program, says Lebrecque. The only information needed to determine which bus a student should ride is an address and grade level.

Making parents and teachers aware of the service at open houses at the beginning of the school year significantly reduced the number of calls and questions to the transportation department, says Lebrecque. This has allowed the department to focus on other concerns, while parents actually receive more detailed information by using the Internet.

Lebrecque predicts that the use of the software may be expanded to incorporate GPS data that would further validate the routes being operated.

Hand-held device aids pre-trip inspections

Pre- and post-trip bus inspections at Clark County School District in Las Vegas are now completed more thoroughly and quickly with the assistance of safety inspection technology.

The department is using software created by Seattle-based Zonar Systems on its fleet of more than 1,100 vehicles. The company specializes in electronic inspection verification software for school buses and commercial vehicles.

Regions of the bus, such as the engine compartment and rear door, are marked with durable, weather-resistant tags that drivers must scan with a handheld monitor to ensure they have checked the area. The reader must be placed within 2 to 5 inches of the tag to activate it.

After the zone has been scanned, a list of components to check appears on the monitoring device. Drivers are expected to check each item for proper functionality.

“There’s really no way to absolutely make a driver check each thing,” says Ronald Despenza, transportation director. “But by getting the driver into the area, they are much more likely to complete the checklist.”

The system also monitors the time it takes to complete an inspection before or after a trip. Despenza says this feature has been especially useful because the district pays drivers for the time required to check the bus.

Before the software was implemented, it took approximately 18 minutes to complete a pre-trip inspection, a duty that now takes eight minutes.

Zonar saves the data collected during each use in a customer-specific database on the Internet. Defects found by the driver are recorded and downloaded periodically by a supervisor. After downloading, an e-mail is automatically sent to the maintenance department with a description of the problem.

The tedious paperwork associated with inspections is eliminated through the use of the software. “Drivers have been receptive because it is so easy for them to use,” says Despenza.

The lack of consistency in bus inspections prompted the district to invest in the system, Despenza says. Now, defects and potential problems are identified earlier and can be taken care of before safety issues arise.

GPS system will aid in route planning

Two-way radios are not always sufficient communication in a district that provides transportation services to more than 65,000 students. The transportation department at Palm Beach County School District in West Palm Beach, Fla., is in the process of installing GPS systems in its fleet of 820 buses.

The system will integrate information from the district’s student database, providing the department with assistance in route planning. The long-term goal is to make the monitoring capabilities available to parents so they can check the status of their child’s bus.

The decision to install GPS software stemmed from the size of the district, which is twice the area of Rhode Island, and the number of students who must be accounted for each day. Joe Reed, assistant director of transportation and maintenance, says although the district is still in the early stages of using the system, he anticipates significant results within a year.

“The GPS technology is going to really pay dividends in August 2004 with the start of the new school year,” says Reed. Each route will be mapped out and tested in the summer to eliminate unnecessary overlapping and inconvenient stops.

The 100 buses currently equipped with the technology are monitored in real time to provide the transportation department with live information as the drivers run their routes.

The existing fleet is gradually getting the system installed by the district’s radio shop department, and all new buses purchased will contain the software. After much research, it was decided that two-way radios were no longer adequate for the large transportation department, says Reed. The constant talk on the radios would prompt some drivers to turn them down, making it difficult to reach them when necessary.

Reed says he has been impressed with the system and has high expectations for it in the future. “We want to make it a win-win situation for the students and the drivers. GPS will benefit scheduling, monitoring, security and overall safety.”

Finding ways to cut busing costs

Faced with a $10.5 million budget deficit, the school board at Anoka-Hennepin School District in Coon Rapids, Minn., gave the transportation department the responsibility of reducing expenditures in all possible areas.

Every service not mandated by the state was either cut completely or significantly reduced in an effort to eliminate $5 million of the district’s debt, says Chuck Holden, transportation director.

The biggest change adopted by the transportation department was the implementation of a fee for service under two miles. The state mandates that transportation be provided to students who live more than two miles from the school they attend, but it is a district’s prerogative to extend service to closer residents.

Of the 11,000 students affected by the change, 7,000 are still riding the bus. This has allowed the district to eliminate 20 buses and collect close to $1 million in the last year.

Although Holden admits that the service his department provides is not as complete as it once was, he says the district has taken every step possible to keep children safe whether they walk, ride in a car or ride the bus.

The 13 municipalities the school district encompasses worked together to develop walking routes, reduce speed limits and add crossing guards at many intersections. The district has made the Internet a resource for the public by posting designated walking routes and maps of the area to help parents decide what is safest for their children.

Many routes have been consolidated with private and public school students combined onto the same bus.

Public hearings were held when the policy was being created, with the majority of people voting to cut peripheral costs such as administration and transportation rather than teachers’ salaries or the number of teachers.

“Parents said they could get their children to school but they couldn’t teach them,” says Holden. “So we’re working with what we have and we’re still getting the job done.”

Holden says the policy of charging for service under two miles will continue even as the budget moves back toward the black. The changes that have been implemented to accommodate reduced bus service are meant to be long term.

The program is running smoother as more people get used to the idea, and Holden says he expects it to get better with time. “This has definitely been a learning experience. It was really controversial, but we could find no other alternative that would have had better results,” he says.

Eliminating unnecessary expenses yields outstanding dividends

Bonnie Russell, executive general manager for transportation services at the Houston Independent School District, considers her department’s budget concerns “severe,” but she and her staff have found a way to replace old buses, maintain a full crew and increase salaries without any driver layoffs.

These accomplishments are attributed to the department’s efforts to eliminate unnecessary expenses and to a $2.3 million grant given to assist in purchasing more environmentally friendly buses.

The grant is part of an initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce air pollution from school buses through the use of cleaner burning fuels. To qualify for the funding to purchase new buses that burn biodiesel fuel, the district had to agree to destroy some older buses in the fleet.

“We consider the timing quite fortunate, because we were faced with the challenge of removing more than 500 potentially defective [Carpenter] buses from service,” says Russell.

The EPA received more than 120 applications that totaled $60 million for the Clean School Bus USA program, the National Biodiesel Board reports. The EPA grant is the first the department has received, but applications have been submitted for additional assistance, Russell says.

To make better use of the updated fleet, the routing and scheduling department developed new routes with consolidated stop locations. Now, fewer buses are required to transport the same number of students.

Students who live within two miles of a district school are asked to walk to that campus and get on a bus there that will transport them to their own school, which may be farther away.

Despite a reduction in about 430 routes, no drivers have been laid off, and the hourly wage has increased more than $2.35 in the last few years, Russell says. A hiring freeze was implemented in 2002, but has since been lifted.

“Our team has really thought out of the box to find solutions that are cost-effective and still provide a high level of service,” says Russell.