Mary Channing has been transportation coordinator for Wilton’s schools for the last 10 out of the 24 years she has worked for the district; she has also been a life-long resident of the town. Still, she paused several seconds before remembering how long it’s been since Wilton had a new fleet of school buses.
“I think it was 1996? Maybe 1997? I think ’97, I think so. It was before my time,” she laughed.
Channing put the district’s 15-year wait for new buses to good use, however, coming up with a list of upgrades that was crucial to include in any vehicle that would transport the town’s 4,300 or so students every year, over 35 different routes and across three different rounds, or “tiers,” for the town’s four schools.
This year’s switch in transportation providers, from First Student to STA, included a brand new fleet of 2013 buses as part of the contract change. The new vehicles were built to the specifications Channing laid out as requirements for any vendor who applied to bid on the contract.
“There are some great changes that impact the district—most importantly for the students, but also for the taxpayers. You’ll see me smiling a lot, because we worked so hard on this. I’m very proud of how it came out, and how it benefits the district and the town—with the savings to the taxpayers. It was very important to me.”
In fact, there were many changes made to the fleet—for safety, economy, comfort and efficiency.
Perhaps the most obvious change to anyone who rides a new Wilton school bus is the new seat belt in every single seat for students. “In Connecticut, I believe we are the only district to have all of our seats in all our buses with lap-shoulder belts,” she reported. “We’ve had lap belts for a very long time, but parents were very excited that the new buses would feature shoulder belts as well.”
Anecdotally, however, students seem less than thrilled with the shoulder belts—and getting them to wear the restraints properly might be more challenging.
“Board policy does not mandate that students use them, only that we provide them for everyone to use.” Channing hopes that parents will stress to their children the importance of using the safety improvement.
Among the other safety upgrades that Channing made sure were part of the district’s new buses:
- 83-passenger buses: There are new 83-passenger buses, in addition to the standard 73-passenger buses—the larger buses are used for routes with heavier capacity to ease on prior overcrowding.
- Integrated child seats: “I had to make sure we had appropriate bus seating for our special needs pre-schoolers. Previously, we’d put car seats in and they might be loose, or the driver would forget to transfer a car seat when there was a bus change—it was never where you needed it when you wanted it. So the first row of every 73 and 83 passenger bus in Wilton now has four integrated child seats.”
- P.A. system: “I’ve gotten complaints from parents, ‘The driver yells at my child all the time!’ Drivers only yelled because sometimes it’s hard to hear over the engine and passenger noise. Now we have speakers in the buses and the driver can easily say something over the system and the kids will hear it.
- Radio: “We got a brand new repeater radio system with the new contractor—it will hopefully improve reception in the outer regions of the town.”
- Stereo: “We have stereo systems now capable of playing a CD. So we’ve recorded a CD for every bus that will play the rules on the bus. The CD also asks that the riders help keep these brand new buses in good condition, and recognize the investment that’s been made. We’ll also have a CD for emergency evacuations.”
- Camera/video: Upgrades were made to improve the ability of school administrators and board members to review videotaped recordings of events with the students and the drivers on the buses during vehicle operations.
- Transit-style, flat-faced buses: “Compared to some of the other neighboring districts’ buses, Wilton’s are rear-engine. It provides us the ability to have the widest possible student entry into the bus, which is also important for safety.”
- Storage: “Another plus that we spec-ed out in two of the spare buses was for undercarriage storage. A lot of our athletic teams have equipment that can’t be—legally or safely—kept inside the bus. Or, if you’re going to put a whole big lacrosse stick in a seat, that’s a seat that another child can’t use. We also can’t put things on the aisle or the rear edge, which is an emergency exit. With this storage, you can put skis in it, you can put hockey sticks in it. And then you don’t have things inside the bus that could possibly fly around.”
Savings on Cost, Time and the Environment
Channing proudly showed off the engine heater each bus is equipped with—it’s something she expects will help the district conserve on fuel costs as well as driver time.
“It uses the same diesel fuel that we run the buses on, and we program it, to tell it what time we need the engine to be warmed to its operating temperature. In the past we’ve had to have drivers come in early in winter months to start the buses and get them warmed up. Now, this heater does that for us with an incredibly small amount of fuel usage. You can see what we’re doing for the environment and hopefully for the taxpayers’ pocketbook. We don’t know yet for what it will save us, but hopefully it will be substantial.”
The rest of the year there’s an environmental benefit too. “The buses are very shiny and nice looking. And we don’t expect to have black smoke coming out of the back of them anymore!”
Bigger capacity buses will help when the district needs to charter transportation for sports teams. “Our spare buses are also used for athletic charters from the high school in the afternoon. The larger buses help us by taking two teams on one bus instead of having to charter—and pay for—two buses. We’ve started coordination between the athletic director and STA, so that we can make it more efficient.”
The new buses also have GPS, just as the previous fleet did; now, however, Channing can integrate between the GPS data and her routing software. “What that will do is show me where the bus is in relation to its assigned route. It will tell me if it’s gotten off-route, if a stop is on-time, if it’s early or if the bus didn’t stop at all. It will also help us identify stops that are never used.”
All of this, Channing hopes, will make things more efficient and cost effective. “If we can contact a parent at a stop that’s never used, to ask—is there any time you plan on using the stop?’ Especially if it’s an out-of-the-way stop, potentially eliminating it could help save time.”
Channing’s also wants to make further improvements in communication with parents to get information out faster, even looking into the possibility of using social media. “Parents today are used to that kind of communication.”