“We use the summer break to address non-emergency repairs and maintenance, things like changing the oil and checking the seals. We have 120 buses with air conditioning, so we change the filters, clean the coils and make sure everything on the bus is operating at its best capacity,” Elrod said.
Another summer priority is the examination of the routes traveled by county buses to adjust for overcrowding and to reduce operation costs.
“Our goal is to assign drivers routes as close to home as possible,” he said. “This allows them to park the buses at home instead of leaving them at the bus shop every night. When you consider the number of buses we have and the miles saved by not having to drive from the shop to their route daily, the savings is tremendous in fuel and other related costs. We are always looking for ways to increase efficiency and save money.”
Six new buses ordered by the county in February will be in operation starting the first day of school. The three buses recently approved for purchase at the July 22 school board meeting will be introduced into routes later in the school year. Also, new to the transportation department are seven new bus drivers.
Elrod said, “We still have open positions, which will be filled by substitutes until we fill those positions. We are always looking for good people that love kids. We do all the training here, but we are looking for the right people.”
Last year, Bartow County buses transported an average 9,000 students daily.
Beverly Ratcliff, a nine-year veteran Bartow County bus driver, said her first priority every day is safety.
“To get ready for the new school year, we all attended our required state meeting where we reviewed safety procedures. We looked at accidents that occurred across the state and nation and talked about them. We watch videos of incidents and discuss what could have been done differently to avoid the situation. On a school bus there is absolutely no room for errors,” Ratcliff said.
One adjustment to Ratcliff’s daily loading and unloading procedure came after discussing an accident that occurred last year in Walker County in which a kindergarten student was struck and killed by a bus after unloading.
“This year, during my unloading at the elementary school, we will unload one bus at a time instead of two. The unloading area at Cloverleaf is small; other schools may not have to make this change though. It depends on the unloading area. We also will not unload unless a teacher is standing outside the school; we need two sets of eyes on the students at all times.”
Another established safety policy is the eight-way system, which requires drivers to ensure essential safety elements are in working order or the bus does not move. The list includes: a series of flashing lights, the crossing gate, the stop arm and the service door.
Ratcliff’s route includes picking up students in grades pre-K through 12th for Cloverleaf Elementary, South Central Middle and Cass High schools. She completes all her pick-ups, then goes to Cloverleaf where she drops off the elementary students. Instead of driving to both South Central Middle and Cass High, she meets a connecting bus. The other driver takes all her middle school students and she takes all his high school students. Ratcliff said this is another cost-saving measure by the county.
All county buses are required to assign seats for their elementary and middle school riders. For Ratcliff the benefit to assigned seating is twofold: it helps her quickly identify whether or not a student is on the bus and it works to reduce stop times. The students do not spend excess time finding a seat, which decreases the time traffic is stopped due to the bus.
“To make my name tags for the kids’ seats, I went to the TRC — The Resource Center — in Cartersville. Bus drivers can utilize their resources, too, since we are county employees. It helps so much to learn their names and those ladies are amazingly helpful. Another thing I made to get ready for the year is my list of bus rules. I have found that when the kids can see and understand the rules, they are less likely to break them,” Ratcliff said.
Stocked with paper towels, gloves, antibacterial spray and adhesive bandages, Ratcliff’s bus is prepared for those unforeseeable situations.
“Sometimes people forget that we, as drivers, have to be ready for anything and we wear many hats. We are safety coordinator, nurse and counselor, in addition to being the driver, which is a huge responsibility.”