The School Board's transportation committee heard about urgent needs - new vans and more cameras on buses - at their meeting on Dec. 15.
Transportation supervisor Michael Frey explained to the committee that the system has 10 vans, not counting the new one that was just ordered for Special Education.
Frey said two of the vans were in pretty good shape, but the rest - some as old as 1998 models - were wearing out.
Committee chairman Curt Denton asked if all those vans were necessary, and Frey said yes, they were in constant use.
"What about leasing?" asked Randy Perryman.
"Lots of counties do," answered Frey.
"When you lease you get into a mileage situation," human resources director Mitchell Byrd pointed out. "I'd like to see the Board start a rotation, and buy a van or two every year."
"Yes," agreed new board member Harvey Jones. "Let's try and budget two every year."
"There are safety concerns," said Barbara Kennedy, the other new board member. "It's not like someone wanting a new car. Let's ask for two and hope for one."
Perryman asked Frey at what point he would decide to permanently retire a van and Frey said he was ready to retire some of them right now.
"I'm scared to death when they go on a long trip," Frey exclaimed, adding that it recently cost the transportation department $1,000 to get a van back to Lewisburg that had broken down in Gatlinburg.
"Some teachers are not driving the vans because they're scared of them," Frey added.
"It would make better sense to pay teachers mileage to drive themselves to conferences than to send them in a van that's likely to break down," Kennedy said.
Denton concluded that part of the discussion by saying it would be his committee's recommendation to the full board that they start purchasing vans.
According to Frey, there is also an urgent need for cameras on all the buses.
He reported that the transportation department is trying out a demonstration camera system on one bus for a year. That system has two cameras, a GPS, and a recorder, and costs $1,200.
"It's good for us," Frey said, telling the committee that he can pull up the camera pictures on the computer monitor in his office, and also send them to the school principals to look at. This has already been useful, he said, in showing parents what their children really get up to on the bus.
"The parents view the pictures and apologize for wasting our time," he said.
Frey added that has already talked with Nancy Aldridge about hunting for grants to pay for cameras on all the buses.
"We'll pursue the grant idea," Byrd said, "But I would like the committee to put cameras in the budget."
"Are there incidents on the buses that cameras would help?" asked Jones.
"Every day," answered Frey. "I've already been in court over something that happened on a bus.
"I'd love a van, but this is my priority," he concluded, inviting the committee members to visit his office in the bus garage to see the "awesome" demonstration system in operation.
"The radio is just as important as the cameras," Denton pointed out. "That needs to be a priority also - the radio needs to work everywhere in the County."
Discussion revealed that the Highway Department's radios work everywhere, but they share an antenna with the ambulance service. The transportation department used to be on that antenna, too, but that privilege was revoked some time in the past.
Frey also told the committee about a computer program for the gas and diesel pumps at the bus garage that had recently been demonstrated to him. It is very high-tech, and tracks every bus's mileage and fuel consumption. Unfortunately, it costs about $30,000.
"It does give tremendous security," said interim director Roy Dukes.
Denton said he had started "brainstorming" after this demonstration and come up with the idea of bar codes that could be scanned at the pump and transferred directly to a computer inside the garage, cutting out the problem of reading drivers' handwriting, and transferring the data by hand. Denton thought technology supervisor Suzanne Ingram could probably come up with a way to implement this for two or three thousand dollars.
"I got the idea at Wal-Mart," he said, "Watching them scan bar codes and punch in numbers to take inventory."
"I'd like to empower Suzanne (Ingram) to see what she can do," Kennedy said. "It would make sense to try the cheap way first."