Board trying to retain bus drivers

Friday, January 30, 2009

A problem with retaining bus drivers after training them was among the topics up for discussion at the school board's transportation committee meeting last Thursday.

Glenn Ezell, the bus garage supervisor, was unable to attend the meeting, but Mitch Byrd, the human resources chief, had been briefed to answer some questions on Ezell's behalf, and a number of bus drivers attended the meeting.

Curt Denton, the chairman, explained that "lots of times" the people who get their Commercial Drivers License in order to drive a school bus then quit to drive a truck.

"Do we know our turn-over?" asked Craig Michael.

"It's pretty high," said Denton, "I don't have the exact number."

Randy Lowe, a mechanic at the bus garage, said they train about six new drivers a year, and about four of those will stay for the rest of the school year.

"I've trained about three who worked a week and left," Lowe said, pointing out that it would cost $3,000 to $5,000 to get that training toward passing a CDL test if a person did it privately.

"We need drivers so bad," he said, adding, "I think they should sign something so they're obligated to stay with us for a while."

Kristen Gold suggested charging for the training, and Denton suggested reimbursing the cost if the driver stayed with the school system for a year.

"That would give them an incentive to stay," Denton said. He also pointed out that the prospective drivers should be required to pass their background check before time and money was spent training them.

Restrictions by the state on the number of years a bus can be in service (15 years running a regular route and two years as a spare) will force Marshall County to purchase three new school buses and a handicapped bus in the near future, and the committee discussed what kind of bus to buy. There are Bluebirds and Thomases in the fleet now, but the newer Bluebirds have problems with the windows that even the manufacturer is unable to solve, and the Thomases have the same issue with the windows, plus electrical and heating problems. The Thomas is just a "cheaper-made bus," explained Lowe, who said that if the school system went to a brand other than Thomas or Bluebird, the mechanics would find that "everything's different."

"Without documentation we don't know what these buses are costing us," said Michael.

"It's hard to keep up with it all," responded Lowe.

The lack of information and concrete numbers was a recurring theme throughout the meeting. The committee had some information on number of bus miles driven and fuel used, but it did not all seem accurate. For one bus, the gallons of fuel used nearly equaled the miles traveled.

"It's a work in progress," said Michael, "But the only thing worse than no numbers is bad numbers!"

Byrd said he would stress to Ezell the importance of getting accurate numbers, and Denton had prepared some forms to be used in recording time spent, miles traveled and gallons used.

"When these forms get in place we should get accurate numbers," he promised.

Scheduling is also a problem, and spare buses end up going out of the county on field trips because the newer buses are occupied on their routes. The committee proposed a 100-mile limit on trips by spare buses.

In the up-coming baseball season, the group foresaw a problem: the teams have to leave at 3:30 p.m. before the regular buses are back.

"Fifteen or 20 people on a bus getting 5 mpg just doesn't make sense," exclaimed Michael. "It would be worth it to run the numbers on using the vans."

"The vans have 100,000 miles on them," said Lowe.

"The Department of Safety has pushed schools out of using vans," said Stan Curtis, Director of Schools. "It's because of safety issues; they had some rollover wrecks with vans."

"We could check and see what's legal and run some numbers," concluded Michael.

Good news was delivered at the end of the meeting: the Edulog company has all the maps and bus riders' information and is preparing the Marshall County database which will be implemented as soon as possible. Using Edulog's computer program should save the district time and money by planning the most economical routes.