Vanessa Ameen’s phone starts ringing around 5:35 a.m., just a few minutes after she gets settled behind her desk at the Richmond County school system’s Transportation Department.
Sometimes the voice on the other end is a parent complaining about a speeding bus or a driver calling in sick.
On Friday, it was the driver of bus No. 228 radioing from the yard to report a flat tire. Ameen, the department’s dispatcher, sent a mechanic to her rescue. By the time the bus was ready to pull out, the route was running 20 minutes behind, one of the few hiccups that morning.
“Not too bad,” Ameen said.
The department has a team of office administrators, data managers, mechanics, technology specialists, bus monitors and dozens of others who work to keep routes efficient and buses on time. Director Jimmie Wiley said a stricter attendance policy and better morale this school year helped improve on driver absences and chronically late buses that plagued the department in 2011-12.
The average daily absentee rate for drivers dropped from 28 in 2011-12 to 20 this year.
For next year, Wiley said the department will record all communication between the dispatcher and drivers along with the conversations between the dispatcher and the public to eliminate any confusion and mediate complaints. Dispatcher equipment will be updated, and the office will display a weather monitor at all times so routes can be adjusted minute-by-minute if needed.
For the first time, the department will also have the special education coordinator handle all dispatches from the 25 special education buses, alleviating the call load for Ameen, who handles the other roughly 150 buses.
“We just want to improve and get better,” Wiley said. “You hear so much negativity about the department, drivers not coming to work, but I can say this year we saw changes.”
Wiley said a new policy requiring a doctor’s note when requesting for sick days and deduction in pay for those who don’t call in helped attendance.
Because of the renewed focus on attendance, the department plans to honor 33 transportation employees who didn’t miss work this year at the Richmond County Board of Education meeting Tuesday with a certificate and acknowledgement.
Administrative Assistant Karen Smith said she and Ameen are revamping the recruitment process to try and hire as many drivers as possible for the 2013-14 school year to add to the current 140.
Smith and Ameen visited churches, businesses and community centers to pass out fliers on how to apply to be a driver and mechanic. They ordered sandwich-board signs and plan to stand in front of the department on Mike Padgett Highway, waving to traffic to spread the word.
“We’re trying to let the public see we need you,” Wiley said. “Driving school buses is just like any other profession. It takes the right people.”
In the past, recruitment has been an issue because of the requirements to have a clean driving record, no DUI arrests and be willing to work split shifts with breaks over the summer and holidays with no pay. However, Smith said applicants should be aware there is a schedule for anybody who wants to work just mornings, nights or special events.
“We just need folks to be loyal,” she said.