Originally created 06/16/04

Old enough to graduate



Many of Richmond County's yellow buses have been going to school as long as most high school seniors.

But instead of reaching their peak, they are over the hill.

That means mechanics have a steady job at the transportation garage off Lumpkin Road, where they were busy Tuesday performing tune-ups and patching torn seats with green duct tape. Of 189 buses used regularly by the school district, 54 are so old that they are no longer available for replacement funding by the state.

"Conventional buses have a 10-year cycle. Transit buses have a 14-year life cycle. We do not receive funding for buses that have exceeded these life cycle age limits," Transportation Director Michael Shinn told board members last week.

That's something school board members are concerned about as they address critical issues such as overcrowding, mechanical breakdowns, a driver shortage and morale problems among drivers. Board members said last week they will call a special meeting this month to address transportation.

Eight new buses were added to the fleet this summer with federal Title I money, but they can be used only to transfer pupils under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ten more have been ordered with sales tax revenue. But Superintendent Charles Larke said those will still not be enough.

"We have buses that are still out there that shouldn't be. They may need to be off the road, but we still need them," he said. "We will use any bus that we can use safely."

With some mechanical maneuvering, transportation officials are able to use a fleet of spare buses with an average age of 20 years. "(This is) to ensure a replacement bus is available for a defective route bus," Mr. Shinn said.

The demand for school buses has skyrocketed in the past decade. According to Mr. Shinn, the reasons include additional trips after opening Cross Creek High School, cheerleaders asking for separate buses, increased bus trips to parades and bus support for the Academy of Richmond County's International Baccalaureate program.

"Over the last several years, the clear distinction between our primary and secondary mission has substantially disappeared as we have been tasked with an increasing number of extracurricular support requirements," Mr. Shinn said.

The transportation department is also struggling with a shortage of qualified drivers and morale issues among drivers.

The district began last year with a substantial shortage of drivers and has not been able to recover. The transportation department has not been able to recruit, train and test an adequate number of drivers to cover the initial shortage and the increasing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Dr. Larke agreed to advertise positions for bus drivers, a costly but effective solution, Mr. Shinn said. "We have interviewed 30 applicants and found 20 suitable for training," he said.

But school board members want to know about morale problems. The district has lost 51 drivers since July 1, 2002, and only a dozen of them retired. Personnel records show that 23 quit and 11 were fired for job abandonment, inappropriate behavior or unsafe actions.

Bus driver Sally Thomas said the main complaints among most drivers are pay, the handling of discipline problems and communication. She said she has worked for years to bring the issues to the board.

"The board members know what the complaints are. It's not just overloading. It's also communication between supervisors and us," she said. "Supervisors should have a monthly meeting with their drivers to work out complaints. At least show us you are trying to work on it."

Dr. Larke promised board members that he would conduct a study of bus driver salaries in the region for the upcoming committee meeting.

Board member Johnny Hatney indicated last week that he wants to find money to purchase more buses. "It's evident 10 isn't going to be enough," he said.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.