CHANDLER, Ariz. — A district here recently underwent a major transition to a new transportation facility featuring significant upgrades, including nearly all new equipment, about double the space in one location, and changes that better accommodate the desert heat.
The Chandler Unified School District #80 transportation team quickly moved its operations from three separate locations into the Ira L. King facility, a new 35,000-square-foot building on July 22, just in time for the new school year — which started the following day.
It was no small undertaking, said David Thiele, the district’s fleet supervisor, who handled a large share of the planning process and new facility design.
“We had to move 280 buses in one day and operate off of picnic tables that first week,” he added. “It was impressive what our staff accomplished.”
“I was so proud of the group,” added Sandy Brown, the transportation supervisor for the district.
One of the buildings that the team had been operating in is about 20,000 square feet, 60 years old, and has needed updates for about 15 years, Thiele said. Dispatch was located there and the team ran special-needs buses from that site. The second building, where the shop was located, is a high school, and was at one time a vocational school.
“It wasn’t designed for any type of buses or garage,” Thiele said.
The third location was a lot and garage, used primarily for parking.
Transportation staff members needed parking spaces during the 10-plus months it took to build the facility, so Thiele opened a temporary site of about 2.5 acres, which accommodated over 100 buses, along with a mobile washroom and office at the largest of the former locations.
“If we had to work on buses, we had to bring them back to the [location at the] high school, about a mile away,” Thiele said.
Thiele moved three mechanics to the new facility, along with approximately 80 buses, the weekend before school started. More mechanics and some drivers stepped in to help during the first three days of school. The transportation department also formed a team of drivers to clean the old facilities.
Mechanics were finishing bus repairs from over the summer at the old sites for about a month before they were completely resettled in the new facility, Brown said.
The new facility is comprised of 18.5 acres and accommodates 252 drivers, 61 bus attendants, 15 mechanics, and several office staff members, said Steve Hewitt, the director of transportation and community education for the district.
Additionally, 90% of the equipment is new, Thiele said. The facility features five 40,000-pound vehicle lifts, four of which are portable; a 1,400 square-foot parts department; and 16 bays, with two designated just for service and an engine wash bay. Thiele designed harnesses that are placed above the bays for mechanics to work on the buses’ rooftop air-conditioning units.
The bays have 20-foot-high ceilings, eight swamp coolers and eight fans to combat the Arizona heat, as well as eight heaters for the desert’s cool mornings and evenings.
To determine the new facility’s design, Hewitt, Thiele, and other transportation staff members as well as the builders visited six other transportation departments and city transportation departments, as well as a couple of school bus dealerships, some of which were new, and found out about what worked for them.
Brown and Thiele advise other pupil transporters who are transitioning to a new facility to ensure they have a plan in place in advance for parking lot spots and entrance and exits, and to consider the size of their department and the space needed for training, meetings, and visitors.
A need for a new bus facility arose as the district has added schools in response to increasing enrollment in recent years, Brown said. The district is made up of 44 schools and two more are being built over the next few years.
One hiccup in the transition that has since been worked out, Brown said, is establishing a system for parking buses in the new lot, which has 340 spaces.
“The drivers are working out whether to park nose-to-nose or tail-to-tail in the new facility since they parked differently at each of the old facilities,” Brown explained.
The transportation team put together a committee to finalize a parking plan, she added.
Meanwhile, mechanics from each of the three old sites now get to work together since there is enough room to do so in the new building.
Moreover, Hewitt said, having all staff members under one roof will strengthen the team.
"It will make us more consistent, safer, and [able to provide] better customer service," he added.
“We are all very excited to be together in this beautiful facility,” Brown said.