Wheels in motion

The roar of school bus engines and the sight of children climbing aboard the "big cheese" marks the start of another school year.

However, as Catawba County Schools sends nearly 250 school buses to serve the county's three school systems, the overseer of school transportation in the county is forced to do more with less.

Under a state budget approved earlier this year, Catawba County Schools received about 2.5 percent less funding than last year. Grappling with those cuts, Catawba County Schools Superintendent Glenn Barger said the system implemented fleet busing in the Maiden High School feeder district.

"With fleet busing, they go pick up the elementary folks, and then go back on the road and pick up middle school and high school students and bring them to the school," he explained. "By doing that, we were able to park seven buses, and of course that was a savings."

In addition to reducing the number of buses on the road, Barger said the school system also reduced the number of CCS employees that are doing double duty — as day-time workers inside the schools and as bus drivers in the mornings and afternoons.

"That cut down on some of the overtime we paid," he said, adding that during late spring and early summer the school system advertised for bus-driving positions. "We were able to retain about 60 non-employees for certification and right now we have put on about 48 of those to what we had before."

All total, that means the system has employed about 80 people that "all they do is drive a bus for us," he said.

"We had a good response," he said of applicants seeking driving positions. "With the economy being down, there are a lot of people looking for any kind of work."

All newly hired bus drivers have to complete bus training, which includes both classroom work and time spent behind the wheel, Barger said. They also have to complete criminal background checks and drug screening, he said.

Apart from about 80 employees who only drive buses, Barger said the remaining drivers of the nearly 250-vehicle fleet are "dual employees."

"The rest are teacher assistants and cafeteria workers and also a custodian or two," he said.

For the teacher assistants and custodians, those drivers must often leave their work posts early, or sometimes arrive late to complete driving, duties he said.

"For lunch room people, it works out fairly well — we can adjust without interfering," he said.

Regardless of whether the drivers are returning or new to the routes, they have not yet run practice trips of the pick-up routes — at least not in their buses, Barger said. Avoiding those practice trips is another cost savings, and buses are stationed at the schools they serve - not parked at drivers' homes.

"We don't do a wholesale dry run like you read about in Charlotte," he said, explaining that the every route is planned for every school very specifically. "It is almost like a GPS system so that by the time you leave the school, the driver know what road to turn down and what student is getting on where."

Barger also said that after a general meeting this morning, school assistant principals met with drivers to discuss questions or concerns.

"We are taking measures to make sure they know where they are going," he said.

That means the buses, as well as the drivers, are ready to hit the road for another school year.

"All of the buses have been gone through this summer - washed and cleaned on the inside and outside," he said. "The mechanics have gone through everything operationally, and they have our stamp of approval.

We should be able to operate without disruption."