The Business Of: School transportation

The Business Of: School transportation

From safety to staffing, tips for managing your school bus fleet
Diesel-fueled buses are the most common for transporting students in cities, suburbs and rural areas due to good gas mileage and easy fueling.

Alternative fuel, surveillance cameras, maintenance and driver salaries all play a role in how a district manages its transportation—unless, of course, the district decides to outsource and let an outside company make all those decisions.

Fortunately, district administrators can choose from three basic contracting models, says Ronna Weber, the executive director of National School Transportation Association, a trade organization for school-bus contractors. They include:

  • Full-service: When the contractor takes over all aspects of transportation, including purchasing and maintaining buses, hiring and training drivers, designing and reviewing routes, and handling parents’ complaints.
  • District maintains some control: In some cases, districts manage routine routes, but outsource specialized and costly services such as special needs transportation, says Weber.
  • Management-only contract: When a district wants to retain both its fleet and its drivers, but eliminate the daily hassle of managing the buses and personnel.

The strength of unions typically dictates whether transportation is managed in-house or contracted out, according to Mark Walsh, president of Transportation Advisory Services, a consulting firm based in New York. Districts in union-heavy states are typically under fire when they consider outsourcing. “In New York, where unions are strong, around 600 of 698 districts maintain district-employed, unionized transportation staff and manage their own fleets,” says Walsh.

Conversely, unions are not common or powerful in Pennsylvania; outside companies run the bus fleets in most districts there. And since 2001, Texas’ Northwest ISD has used the full-service model, contracting out to Durham School Services, a bus operating company.

A cost analysis that took anticipated fleet upgrades into account revealed outsourcing would save the district thousands of dollars a year, says Dennis McCreary, assistant superintendent of facilities, planning and construction. “After the start-up year, there was a significant improvement in service for our students,” he says.

Staffing challenges

Regardless of who operates the busses, the biggest challenge right now is finding drivers because of the erratic schedule, says Walsh. “You have to find people who are willing to work four to five hours a day for 180 days a year,” he says. “The people who are willing to do that are aging out of employment. Most young people would rather work a year-round retail position.”

Training Must-Dos

Patrick Vaughn from Student Transportation Inc. gives tips for training safe drivers:

  • Provide a minimum of 35 hours of training, including 15 on the road with an experienced driver observing
  • Develop a pre- and post-trip checklist for drivers to follow, including making sure lights and brakes are operating, and making necessary mirror adjustments
  • Provide drivers with extra training in backing up as accidents are more likely to happen when a bus is in reverse. Better yet, teach drivers to not back up at all
  • Remind drivers to always count students coming on and getting off the bus
  • Note the “danger zone,” or the 10-foot perimeter around the bus. Drivers should ensure no students are in that zone before moving

Young people also are not attracted to the field because of the stress associated with dealing with children—the average age of a bus driver is 55, Walsh says.

Private companies typically have more flexibility to modify wages and benefits to attract employees, says Walsh. Salaries, raises and benefits are typically predetermined by school budgets when districts manage transportation.

Selecting a bus type

Buses in snowy areas typically have a 10-year lifespan, says Walsh. “But in southern and western states where road salt doesn’t deteriorate the body of the bus, it is common for busses to run for more than 15 years,” says Walsh.

And considering how a bus is powered is vital. While most school buses use diesel fuel, less than 10 percent of them use alternative energy sources. “Compressed natural gas, hybrid and propane options are available, but none are especially prevalent,” Walsh says.

Propane is the most popular of those options, due to its lower cost per gallon (about $1.40) compared to other alternative, clean-burning fuels. But a district without a propane fueling station nearby would have to build one at cost of around $250,000, says Walsh.

Districts can recoup the cost of a fueling station within a few years due to the per-gallon cost savings, says Patrick Vaughn, chief operating officer of Student Transportation Inc., a bus service provider.

Though propane buses tend to get 5 miles to the gallon compared to diesel’s 7.5, the former still comes ahead financially because of cost. And diesel buses may have trouble starting in cold weather, while propane-fueled vehicles can start at 30 degrees below freezing, says Vaughn.

Diesel continues to be the most popular fuel choice. And with the near elimination of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides over the last 10 years, clean diesel burns comparably or even cleaner than natural gas buses, says Allen Schaeffer, the executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum.

“In addition to being 20 to 25 percent less expensive than compressed natural gas buses, clean diesels do not require the expense of adding separate fueling infrastructures,” Schaeffer says.

The Radnor Township School District in Pennsylvania owns 62 biodiesel buses, which were paid for by a state grant. Biodiesel burns cleaner than regular diesel because it is extracted from biodegradable plant oils. “Biodiesel costs us $3.50 a gallon,” says Burt Blackburn, the director of transportation. “We are in a consortium to get fuel at a lower cost.”

While the upfront cost of purchasing a diesel bus may be a lot—$80,000—leasing tends to be more expensive over a vehicle’s lifespan. “We typically have a bus for 10 to 14 years, so when we do need to procure a new one, the per-year cost ends up being cheaper with owning instead of leasing,” says Blackburn.

Districts also have the option of providing Wi-Fi or radio to entertain passengers. “They are kept busy by Wi-Fi, and busy students tend not to fight or distract the driver,” says Vaughn.

However, in a dangerous situation, such as an emergency evacuation, it can be hard to get students’ attention if they are wearing headphones. And parents, particularly those of elementary school students, may question songs played on the radio, as they could include curse words or sexual subject matters, says Vaughn.

Keep students­—and drivers—safe

Districts can invest years of training in drivers who make the job a career. “Some of our drivers have been here close to 40 years,” says Blackburn. “They know the students from when they first step on the bus to the day they graduate.”

Training drivers in fight intervention is critical yet complex, says Kathy Furneaux, executive director of the nonprofit Pupil Transportation Safety Institute. “We’ve heard drivers say that they want to break up fights but are hesitant because of the liability of touching a child,” she says. “Districts need to set a touch policy, and drivers need clear training on how and when to intervene.”

Many training programs don’t teach drivers to deal with students who have weapons, students who are on drugs or gang activity, says Furneaux.

But drivers may have to act quickly to protect students if gunshots are fired or a student holds or waves another weapon around. Drivers also can prevent violence or other unwanted behavior by recognizing when a student has taken an illegal substance, says Furneaux.

Gang members can create violent situations on buses and at bus stops. Police can inform the school bus drivers who the gang leaders are and also offer training in how to spot gang-related behavior.

Keeping watch

Cameras on buses are a safety necessity today, says Furneaux. “A driver concentrating on the road may hear some sort of minor disturbance, like bullying, and not be able to identify the students involved,” she says. “Having a record [on video] of what happened allows the district to take action on the right students.”

A manager who has spent a lot of time training a driver won’t want to believe the driver drove unsafely, and a parent may not want to believe their child is a bus bully, says Furneaux. “Video only shows what actually happens,” she says.

Bus monitors who help drivers keep watch over the bus also must be vetted and trained properly. For example, the Santa Rosa County School District in Florida contracts transportation services to Durham School Services, which requires monitors to pass a third-party background check and a drug screen, and take eight hours of classroom training, says Joseph Harrell, the assistant superintendent of administrative services.

The district requires monitors to attend an additional 200-hour training class that all driver candidates attend, he says.

And following successful completion, monitors receive hands-on training which includes proper wheelchair securement and manual lift operation, and installation of car and STAR seats, which are add-on restraints for students under 65 pounds.

Being prepared for trouble

When transportation service is run in-house, the district’s umbrella insurance policy tends to cover all of the vehicles and drivers—but that may not be enough, says Rick Klaus, the vice president of business development for Durham School Services.

“The biggest liability issues we see are negligence that causes an accident, and employee misconduct with a student,” says Klaus. “And a contractor can afford and provide much more protection for students, drivers and the district than a district can on its own.”

Kylie Lacey is associate editor. 


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