ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Joe Mirabella, who co-founded an innovative program to boost school transportation efficiency and promoted advertising on school buses — a controversial stance — died of a heart attack on Sunday at age 68.

Colleagues remembered Mirabella, the former director of transportation for Cherry Creek School District in Englewood, as a mentor and a bold and charismatic leader.

"He was a giant here in Colorado," David Anderson, who worked with Mirabella for more than 20 years at Cherry Creek, told SBF. "He was a great man — a mentor for many of us."

During his tenure at Cherry Creek from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, Mirabella brought innovations to his own operation and others.

Early adopter of natural gas
Anderson, who was fleet manager for Cherry Creek while Mirabella was director, said that the district ran more than 50 school buses on natural gas for about 10 years, starting in the mid '80s. Mirabella saw it as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

"Back then, most people thought, 'What are you doing?'" Anderson recalled, noting that the high altitude added to the challenge of running the dual-fuel (gas and compressed natural gas) systems. "We literally had to make some parts."

Launched seminal study
Mirabella and another school transportation leader, Augie Campbell, formed the Metro Area Transportation Efficiency Study (MATES) in the '80s. The program uses metrics to allow school districts to compare themselves to others of a similar size and to find efficiencies.

Anderson, now director of transportation and fleet at Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton and a National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) board member, noted that the MATES program is now being used as a model for a new metrics project that NAPT is developing.

Cited benefits of bus ads
Mirabella was also known as an advocate of an unpopular cause: advertising on school buses. He promoted the idea at the National Congress on School Transportation in 1995 and 2000.

"I have just tried to campaign to open people’s minds to exploring the benefits of advertising and gaining revenues for their school districts," Mirabella told SBF in '99.

While numerous critics have said that advertising could distract other motorists, Mirabella contended that there was no statistical evidence that it was a safety hazard. He pointed out that revenue from advertising could help to retire buses that had outlived their usefulness.

"That enhances the safety for kids," he told SBF.

In '97, Mirabella told The Associated Press that Cherry Creek's bus ads, which were chosen by a committee, were bringing in more than $100,000 per year — $2,500 for each of 45 buses.

Led on national level
In addition to his work in Colorado, Mirabella was a longtime NAPT member and served on its board of directors for six years.

NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin noted that Mirabella was also a critical member of the team that developed the association's first strategic growth plan.

"He became a mentor to me and many others new to the industry who appreciated his pragmatic advice," Martin said, calling him "a larger-than-life character."

In 1999, Mirabella was named SCHOOL BUS FLEET's Administrator of the Year. The award came as the veteran director was planning to retire.

"To me, it’s a nice end to a career to be recognized as someone who has contributed a lot to pupil transportation," he told SBF at the time.

Mirabella will be laid to rest on Friday, March 2, at 2 p.m. at Horan & McConaty, 3101 S. Wadsworth Blvd., Lakewood, Colo.