Summer vacation is drawing to a close soon for families with kids returning to school. And the most consistent symbol that classes will be back in session may be the yellow buses crisscrossing neighborhoods to deliver their precious cargo.
However, although our bus fleet looks pretty much the same as when we parents and grandparents attended school, it’s a different kind of transportation in many ways.
“The vehicles themselves haven’t changed much—they are a bit more comfortable and you rarely see a stick shift any more but, more importantly in the Sylvania Schools, is our approach. Now we put much more emphasis on safety, new technology, and how our drivers engage with students,” according to Jim Wolpert, the district’s director of transportation.
Sylvania has the biggest transportation fleet among suburban districts in Lucas County, and it stacks up just behind Toledo Public in fleet size. This means Wolpert oversees 90 employees who drive and maintain 93 buses and six vans … making more than 300 runs per day over 61 routes. Overall, 4100 of the district’s nearly 7800 students regularly ride a bus to class. The school district provides transportation for students at 17 charter and non-public schools, as well.
“Our goal is to make every vehicle as safe and reliable as possible,” explained the man in charge of vehicle repair and maintenance for the district, Bob Dickerson. We were watching Ohio State Highway Patrol inspector Mike Rodriguez perform one of the annual safety checks each bus gets in the first half of every year. As the methodical inspection progressed, Bob listed new features that make Sylvania buses safer.
“All of our newer buses have ABS breaking and stability control. We’ve gone to completely padded seats, which means each row is its own compartment designed to protect the rider. We used to have just two exit doors. But now, in addition to exits in the front and back, buses have 1-2 window exits and two roof hatches that open for ventilation or escape if necessary,” Bob said.
Sylvania is also phasing in new technology that will assist drivers to better negotiate their routes. “Tablets in all of our buses will store data about each route and give house-by-house instructions. This can be changed every time we add or drop a new student location. A driver—even if it’s a sub—can follow any route quicker and more safely,” explained Transportation Director Wolpert.
A third initiative is less high tech and more high touch. “Approaching kids nowadays is a little different than it once was,” Wolpert explained. “Sylvania has grown to encompass many different perspectives and cultures. So, we’re not just training drivers how to operate the bus anymore, we’re reminding them that how they interact affects a student’s day. The most positive impact we can have on a student often come from saying ‘good morning’ or ‘have a great day’ to them. Even with challenging situations, we want the drivers to remember that if they show they care, the student will care.”
Despite a competitive employment environment in today’s job market, the director said, “We are working hard to have every position filled going into the new school year—including the seven “on-call” substitute drivers that are needed most every day. We are still actively hiring.”
“Understand that we are not only competing with other school districts for staff, but also other sectors of the economy—retail, industry, food service. The school district is a very good employer, with a livable salary and good benefits. But driving is just 4-5 hours a day. That’s tough if you want to make it a career,” he said.
“Our board and the administration have been very supportive of the things we are doing to attract new hires. This includes paid training and allowing drivers to work other jobs in the district to fill out a full-time work week.”
A good example is Andrea Geer, who is starting her second year as a driver. She’s added hours working mid-day in the transportation office to create a full-time situation during the school year. She and her husband are also co-owners of the bakery in Mayberry, so she works there in the summer.
“My mom was a bus driver by trade, so I am used to the schedule. And I previously worked as a paraprofessional and playground aide with the district. The current arrangement creates a perfect lifestyle balance for my husband and me,” she said. “I love the job, especially when the kids wave at me after I drop them off or bring a parent into the store to meet me. If you like working with kids and like to drive, it’s perfect.”
Longtime Sylvania resident Mark Luetke has served on city council, the board of education, and numerous foundation and community boards.