Fifty-thousand students attend schools in the Henrico County (Va.) Public Schools system. Out of those 50,000, Henrico County’s pupil transportation department is responsible for ensuring the safe delivery of about 29,000 students on an average day. It takes a fleet of over 600 school buses to successfully traverse the 224 square miles the county encompasses, and deliver students to and from school on time.
More than 300 of their buses are Type D transit-style buses, but the school district is hoping to phase them out. However, they expect that to take some time. Every bus the county has purchased since model year 2009 has been a conventional bus.
“We like the capacity that was only available on the transit buses when they were purchased, but the conventional buses now provide equal capacity and get us better gas mileage as well as easier and less expensive maintenance,” says Josh Davis, the director of pupil transportation for Henrico County Public Schools, which is based in Richmond.
The transportation department has a staff of over 600 full-time employees. About 475 are school bus drivers, 100 are bus aides, and about 40 are office staff members that run the team’s offices and training department.
One of the most difficult things the team has to do, Davis says, is stick to their schedule.
“Our schedule is very ambitious; it’s very tight in regards to our home-to-school both in the morning and the afternoon,” Davis says.
Tier system for on-time performance
In order to adhere to this schedule, the bell schedule in Henrico County separates its 50,000 students into four segments, called tiers. The first two tiers are composed of the county’s elementary schools, tier three is composed of middle schools and tier four is high schools.
Students in the first tier need to arrive at their respective schools by 7:30 a.m., second tier by 8 a.m., third tier by 8:25 a.m. and fourth tier by 8:55 a.m. At the end of the day, tier one, two, three and four students are picked up at 2:10 p.m., 2:40 p.m., 3:25 p.m. and 3:55 p.m., respectively.
To further complicate matters, not all students live near the school they attend. The county is large, and some students live on one end of the county but attend school on the opposite end. In order to ensure the safe transportation of these students, the Henrico County transportation team devised a system of hubs.
Through this hub system, a bus will pick up a student near their home on one end of the county and transport that student to one of four regional hubs. From here, another bus will transport that student, along with any others destined for the same school, all the way to their school in another zone in the county.
“About 56 of our buses are devoted every day to running this hub system in support of our specialty center students,” Davis says. “That’s about 2,300 of our students that are served by that system.”
Maintaining a sizable staff, efficient fleet
Since the recession, money toward schools has been tight. Money toward pupil transportation has been even tighter. The Henrico County pupil transportation department is no stranger to problems that many transportation departments face: money, driver shortage and an aging fleet.
“We need professional, trained drivers, and we need good buses that run consistently and adequate driver pay to attract folks to the profession,” Davis says.
The bus driver position at Henrico County doesn’t pay very much, which means the district experiences a high turnover rate for its drivers. Every year, the district needs to hire and train 80 to 100 drivers. “When you compare that to the smaller districts and counties, that would represent their entire workforce or more,” Davis says.
To try to stay ahead of that yearly turnover rate, the transportation team partnered with the human resources team to implement an employee referral program. Any employee who refers a new driver who is hired earns $250. This program was first implemented a year ago, and it yielded 34 new drivers. The department plans to maintain the program for the current school year.
Almost equally as important as having professional and trained drivers is having a working fleet. About 44% of the transportation department’s fleet is at least 11 years old. The school bus replacement cycle has fallen behind, and Davis says that they’re struggling to catch up.
“Sometimes we have days where we have 90 to 100 buses in the shop waiting for service, and that’s very challenging for us to be able to cover all of our runs with qualified drivers and buses that are running,” Davis says.
So, when Davis was looking for a vendor to purchase new school buses from, he looked very carefully at the fuel cost data for late-model conventional buses and their maintenance expenses to fully understand the total cost of ownership. That sort of analysis had not been done before he was there, and now that it’s been done, he feels very comfortable with the selected vendor and believes they can save money over time.
Davis is dedicated to the Virginia Association for Pupil Transportation (VAPT); he and his assistant director attend every one of the association’s regional meetings, and send about 10 or 12 employees to VAPT's annual convention. They are also members of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), whose annual Summit is being held in Richmond this year.
“One of the things we like the most about VAPT and NAPT is the professional development opportunities that are provided,” Davis says. “We want to expose our personnel to that if at all possible.”
Special care for special needs
More than 1,200 of the district's students have an IEP that requires special transportation, and the department handles each of them in a very individualized manner, Davis says.
The team is working to enhance the training that school bus aides and drivers who work with these students receive, especially during the summer when the department knows that the needs of these students can change. Being able to adapt to any changes in needs quickly and efficiently is a priority.
“We do put a lot of energy in understanding our special-needs students, and quite a bit of our buses and aides are dedicated to those folks,” Davis says.