District prepares bus fleet for first day back on the road
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 18, 2010 1:46 PM
The big yellow school buses will begin rolling next week, and the transportation department is putting the finishing touches on routes and assignments.
In a district where enrollment hovers around 19,000-plus students, an estimated 12,000 ride a school bus each day, said Raymond Smith, director of transportation for Wayne County Public Schools.
The ultimate goal, he said, is safety first.
The summer months are the department's busiest time, Smith said. While the past few months have also included summer school and other activities requiring use of the buses, it is also when the fleet is inspected and serviced.
The district maintains 220 regular buses, 60 spare vehicles, which serve as backup when a bus goes down for service, and 40 activity buses.
This year also marked a change in requirements for driving the activity buses, Smith said.
"It used to be that a coach or someone else could get behind the wheel and operate one," he said.
Now, additional training and certification are required by the state.
"That's really a major change from what we have had in the past," he said. "In the past, DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) allowed for a license called 'activity bus only.' It was a license just like a school bus driver, but you're not required to acquire a school bus driver certificate."
That all changed effective July 1.
The DMV now requires a school bus certification.
"It's a stark contrast," Smith said. "When you have a classroom teacher that calls out sick, that classroom teacher can be temporarily replaced by a substitute teacher but a substitute teacher doesn't have to be certified. But you cannot replace a school bus driver who's not certified."
There is a grace period for making the transition, which should be done by 2015, Smith said.
Basically, he said, that means the DMV will no longer issue any more of the "activity bus only" license and anyone currently holding one has until 2015 to receive the training and certification.
"We have offered three classes, three sessions, during this summer so that it will not affect their time away from the classroom," Smith said. "We had it in Greene, Lenoir and Wayne counties."
The training includes three days of classroom work and three days of driving.
Two more sessions will be squeezed into the schedule before school starts, Smith said, who said he is comfortable with the new requirement, particularly since it factors in a time of transition.
The license change will be beneficial in another way, raising the number of certified drivers in the district.
"We had a very, very short list of substitute bus drivers," Smith said. "So the pool of available substitute bus drivers will increase considerably because everybody will have the same license."
The current roster of bus drivers, in the neighborhood of 275-300, also serve in a dual capacity -- custodian, cafeteria, teacher assistant.
Since the state-owned yellow school buses travel in excess of two million miles during the school year, it's important to streamline the routes each year.
That's not an easy task, considering all the changes that can occur, both during the summer months and throughout the year.
"You have children moving from one place to another, which may change our bus assignments, (then their) moving from one grade level to another, from elementary to middle school," Smith said. "All of those kids are going to require new bus assignments.
"Also in the mix is kids entering school for the first time. We have got to get the registration information for all the kids. It's an ongoing, never-ending process."
Staff use TIMS, transportation information management system, to create the new routes.
Bus drivers will also get to exercise "the benefits of seniority" and pick their own routes, Smith said. They will then have a mass meeting on Monday, two days before classes resume on Aug. 25.
"All the bus drivers and assistant principals will come and hear information that will be pertinent for the coming school year, from the finance department, standard behavior management training, after we do the bus distribution."
At that time, drivers will pick up their assigned buses and take them to their respective schools.
Bus drivers, Smith noted, are not allowed to take the buses out on the roadways before the official start of school. If they desire to do a trial run of their route, he said, they have to do it on their own time, in their own vehicle.
"They cannot go out and familiarize themselves with the route -- no riding around unnecessarily -- that's state law," he said. "We cannot allow them to use state dollars to drive around."
One of the biggest challenges his department faces with the start of school are all the individual requests his office receives.
While they cannot all necessarily be accommodated, Smith said his department does a respectable job of trying to be fair.
Officials go by a standard count at the outset and then take another midyear to determine ridership, additional route changes and whether buses need to be added or consolidated.
The initial days are the ones school officials pay the most attention to, as that is how the state determines its allocations Smith said.
"Those first 10 days of schools are critical," Smith said. "I instruct my drivers to not leave students standing on the side of the road. We're not familiar yet. It's just a time when we do not say no ridership.
"Once we get them to the school and find out they need to go somewhere else, we'll get them there."
At this point, information on bus routes has already been distributed to individual schools and will be available during open houses.
It will also be published in the News-Argus for the central attendance area schools.
All Smith would ask in return from the public, he said, is a little patience.
"The one thing I want everybody to understand about what we do, while we may not be able to provide everyone with the level of service that they desire, our main goal is to provide buses that are safe and to provide safe passage to and from school every day," he said.