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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Keeping School Fleets Running Smoothly
By Susan E. Hoffman

Sarasota County School District transports 25,000 kids to and from school every day. Organizing the routes is a challenging task, but they are aided by some high-tech solutions.

North Port, FL -- Ellery Girard has a challenging task. He must assure that almost 25,000 students are safely transported to nearly 50 schools every morning, and delivered back home (or wherever they choose to go) every afternoon.

"It's a challenge, especially as up to 40 percent of the kids go somewhere different every day," said Girard, director of the Sarasota School District's Transportation Department. "One day they get dropped off at grandma's house, another day they have soccer practice, or maybe they go to mom's work."

Girard said as long as there is room on the bus going to another location, the district tries to accommodate each student. But he said it can be hard to keep track of children whose schedules change daily.

"Some kids have such complicated schedules, even their parents don't know where they are," he joked. Joint custody arrangements also keep children moving from one household to another.

"It's today's world, today's reality, so we try to accommodate them," Girard said. However, when parents want to change their child's bus arrangements, Girard wants them to come to the office.

From now on, though, the district and parents will find it easier to know where their children are.

This year, the district is issuing special ID cards for every student. Radio Frequency IDs, or RFIDs, include an embedded chip, or transponder, that can be read by devices being installed on every bus. The students can keep their cards in their pocket, purse or backpack, or on a lanyard around their neck.

They don't have to take the card out or slide it through any kind of reader; it can be read whenever it comes within a yard or so of the device. Hence, all a student needs to do is walk on the bus, or step off the bus, and the entrance or exit is electronically recorded.

"We will now know exactly when and where any student got on a bus, which bus they were on, and where they got off," Girard said. "So if a parent calls and says, 'My little Johnny didn't get off at his stop,' the district can look up their records and see which bus little Johnny got on, at what time, and where he got off."

Girard said, "Sarasota is the first county in Florida to be up and running with this system." The district ran a pilot program over the summer. The RFID cards will be started at the elementary school level this year. He added that Sarasota was also first in the state to have Global Positioning Systems on all its buses.

Tracking the buses

Barbara Matteson, the district's routing supervisor, demonstrated how the GPS system is tied into the computer mapping system.

"Each bus will show up on the screen," she said. "Right now, most of them are in the parking lot here, but the ones that are out appear on the map." She showed how information about each bus -- including its location, the direction it's headed, and how fast it's going -- is displayed in real time on a map on the computer monitor. It also shows where the bus has been, where it stopped and for how long.

"So if someone calls and says, 'You missed my bus stop,' we can check to see when and for how long the bus was there," Matteson said.

The district uses a system called Trapeze MapNet. One of the real benefits of the computer system is the ability to plan out the most efficient bus routes for the 25,000 children who have to be transported each day.

The district inputs the home location of each student who is entitled to bus transportation to school. The database contains information such as the location of every school, its hours, and whether certain streets are one way. Then the software compiles the most efficient routes.

"We have 250 drivers, and each one drives an average of two routes in the morning and two routes in the afternoon," she said.

Matteson, who has worked for the district for 28 years, said, "We used to have to do this with a big paper map with pins all over the place." The software, she said, is not only more efficient, but assures all students are accounted for.

The GPS system and the RFID cards cost the district around $900,000.

Driver training

Diane Carney is one of several state-certified trainers who work for the school district.

"Each school bus driver must first have a commercial driver's license," she said. "We then teach a course on such skills as straight backing, offset backing and parallel parking on both sides." Drivers have at least 20 hours of classroom work, and a minimum of eight hours behind the wheel with a trainer.

"They also have an experienced driver go with them when they first get started," she said. They can pick up tips from seasoned drivers, such as how best to deal with unruly children or worried parents.

Drivers must also have a special passenger endorsement on their license, and each is subject to an extensive FBI background check.

Carney said, "I love training. It's a challenge teaching adults how to drive."

The district has a paved training and testing area, marked out for the drivers to learn their parking maneuvers. "It's a challenge to parallel-park a 77-passenger bus in a 40-foot spot," she said.

Drivers are also trained on features such as the special needs buses designed to lift a wheelchair. "We spend time on special-needs training too," she said. "There is so much to learn, for example, with the autistic children."

Replacement costs

Girard said older buses in the fleet are gradually being replaced with newer models.

The new buses are now equipped with air conditioning. The cost to buy a new bus now is around $92,000.

"The costs went up because the new buses have to meet the new E20 biofuel requirements. That alone adds $12,000 to $14,000 to the cost."

Since 2000, all new school buses must also be equipped with seat belts.

Girard did a detailed analysis of fleet replacement and found the most effective time to replace a bus is when it is 12 to 14 years old. At that point, it has logged 250,000 to 350,000 miles, beyond which repair costs are too expensive. Old buses are sold, often in foreign countries.

"Once on vacation, I saw one of our old buses in St. Maarten," he said.

He said about one-third of the fleet has a video camera installed. The cameras can be moved from bus to bus, so if the district has complaints about a particular bus, a camera can be placed there to learn what's going on. Many more buses have boxes, though, to hold the cameras.

"You can't necessarily tell whether there's a camera there or not," Girard said. "When we tell the kids the video is on, they tend to behave. And it can change the parents' vocabulary."

District personnel review the tapes from time to time, often to verify a claim made by a child or parent.

"It's a very effective tool to keep the kids safe," Girard said. They can also show a video to parents when a child has been unruly.

Otherwise, the video is not publicly released and is only available to certain district staff. "In 14 years, I can only think of about four times the police have had to review the video," said Girard.

Walk or ride?

By state law, the district must provide a bus ride to school for any students who live more than two miles from the school (by a walking route), or if the walking route is hazardous. As a courtesy, though, the Sarasota School District allows kindergarten students who live more than a mile from school to ride -- even though there is no state funding for it.

"We also provide courtesy transportation, strictly on a space-available basis," Girard said. "If there is space on a bus stop near the home, we might be able to let them ride." However, parents seeking courtesy transportation must go to the Transportation Department's office in Nokomis to sign up. Then, if there is space available on the bus, the student may be allowed to ride.

When students ride the bus for the first time, Girard said it's not unusual to see a parent follow behind in a car, then greet the child upon arrival at the school.

"We understand they want to make sure their kids are safe, and it's scary for the little ones the first couple of times," he said.

For more information, visit www.sarasota.k12.fl.us/trans/trans.htm where you can look up bus routes by your address. You can call the district's transportation department at (941) 486-2141.

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