ATLANTA — When John Franklin came to Atlanta Public Schools as executive director of transportation in May 2014, one of his top priorities was bolstering school bus maintenance.
“There were serious but solvable mechanical issues taking place that did not allow our bus operators to have reliable buses to perform their jobs,” Franklin said.
Atlanta Public Schools reportedly had the newest fleet of school buses in the state of Georgia, but the fleet was plagued by maintenance issues that affected all aspects of service: routes, athletics, and trips.
“This all came to a head with repeated parental concerns and a local news exposé on the number of buses being towed due to mechanical failure,” Franklin said.
In December 2015, funding was appropriated to create new fleet leadership positions, technician positions with stronger skill sets, higher salaries, and service writers. All of the new positions required ASE school bus and automotive certifications. A number of long-term successful technicians were retained.
According to Franklin, the district was able to recruit strong techs from diverse locations, and their variety of mechanical backgrounds fostered better group problem solving.
“I wasn’t necessarily looking for school bus mechanics,” Franklin said. “I was looking for inquisitive mechanical minds with a strong work ethic who weren’t afraid of such applications as computer diagnostics, anti-lock brakes, multiplex wiring, smart switches, and DPF/after-treatment.” The techs’ maintenance experience included such fields as waste management, military contracting, oil field pumps and support, transit, and airport ground support equipment.
The group came together in June 2016, just in time for another initiative: the outsourcing of school bus inspections to a vendor at night.
“Too often in K-12 school bus shops, the labor and production hours needed to complete the state inspections eats up labor for service and repair,” Franklin explained.
Having a vendor conduct the state inspections freed up Atlanta Public Schools’ techs to focus exclusively on repairs, preventive maintenance, and service.
“The techs felt more engaged in repairs, and there was ample time to provide training so that skills were maintained and increased,” Franklin said.
During the first month of inspections by the vendor, the dire condition of the fleet was clear: Around 90% of buses were red-tagged with maintenance issues. The new tech crew began making critical repairs to get the buses ready for the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.
“That was the beginning of the fleet turnaround in Atlanta,” Franklin said.
One of the key improvement areas has been in the fleet’s diesel particulate filter (DPF) program. The department purchased a DPF baker and blower and has been cyclically changing out filters as part of preventive maintenance service.
The DPF program improvement led to a 61% decrease in Atlanta Public Schools’ number of school buses towed, bringing down the costly tow invoices.
The department has also saved about $70,000 in fuel with improved battery and charging system diagnostics. And with the newer techs’ higher skills sets, they are able to conduct some of the engine rebuilding work that was previously outsourced.
Atlanta Public Schools also recruited a new fleet manager and a new fleet foreman. Both have diverse backgrounds in heavy diesel applications such as trucking, automotive, and ground support.
Franklin said that he looked for a fleet manager who was versed in vehicles that had new-technology diesels but never experienced sustained speeds to force manual regeneration of DPFs. He found that in Oliver Baird, a former fleet manager for Tug Technologies and Coca-Cola.
In addition to their technical expertise, the new maintenance crew has exhibited strong teamwork.
“One of the best outcomes of this reorganization has been the esprit de corps and professionalism exhibited by this group,” Franklin said. “They collaborate and coordinate on problem solving mechanical issues, and they have great leaders. … Productive shops are more than just a conglomerate of technicians — it is about leadership, organization, and having the right people committed to [Atlanta Public Schools’] first core value of putting students and schools first.”
The fleet department has also sponsored student intern programs. Two students from Atlanta Public Schools’ alternative education academy have begun internships in the shop. Also, a French exchange student who was studying diesel technology in Toulouse, France, came to work in the department for three weeks.
Atlanta Public Schools runs 295 route buses and transports 27,000 students daily. The district is ranked No. 63 in School Bus Fleet's Top 100 School District Fleets list for 2017, which will appear in the upcoming October issue of the magazine.