- Associated Press - Monday, May 19, 2014

GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) - Two years ago Cassandra Echols’ daughter, then a junior at Greenville-Weston High School, called, wanting to skip school for the day.

She said, “Mom … the bus is 20 minutes late,’” Echols said, and hadn’t yet arrived. “I said, ‘Yes, baby, you can. Although this was a one-time occurrence, I wondered why I never received a call about the bus being late.”

Greenville Public School District Director of Transportation Debbra Williams said buses are rarely more than 15 minutes late, if ever, and when one goes down, another is dispatched immediately. Moreover, she said, that short turnaround prevents any would-be effort to notify students or their parents.

Echols’ daughter was marked absent that day two years ago, and the mother wished there were some kind of way for her not to have been.

That’s simply district policy, spokesman Everett Chinn said, regardless of any sort of transportation snafu.

On average, 75 percent to 80 percent of Greenville public school students rely on school buses to get to and from school.

“If not for buses, a great number of students would go without education,” Williams said. “The bottom line is to get kids to school.”

The district has 38 buses in its active fleet and 43 drivers to transport roughly 3,800 students to and from its 13 schools, to various programs and to district events.

Bus drivers are required to have a Commercial Driver’s License and have passed a bus-related test regarding vehicle inspection, loading/unloading, operation, passenger management and the handling of emergency situations.

Each driver in the district is required to have a cellphone handy in case of emergency. Chinn said each bus has a first-aid kit but no defibrillators to treat students who go into cardiac arrest; however, the state does not require the devices be carried aboard school buses.

Buses are retired after racking up between 200,000 and 250,000 miles. The district’s oldest bus still in service was built 17 years ago.

The district added four new buses for the 2013-2014 school year, manufactured by leading bus builders Blue Bird Corp., based in Fort Valley, Georgia, and High Point, North Carolina-based Thomas Built Buses Inc.

According to the district’s business office, $368,000 was allocated this current school year for bus repairs, fuel and supplies.

The district’s overall budget this year is $60 million, which includes, among other things, employee salaries. The district employs two full-time mechanics and two mechanic assistants to keep up with bus fleet repairs.

None of the district’s 38 buses is equipped with seat belts - and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which establishes federal motor vehicle safety standards, because school buses are heavier - and distribute crash forces differently - than do light trucks and passenger cars, the most-reliable way to provide crash protection to bus passengers is through a concept called “compartmentalization,” by which students aboard full-size buses are protected from crashes by the rows of closely spaced seats, which are built with energy-absorbing seat backs.

The Greenville Public School District requires its drivers to daily inspect buses before and after driving their routes, and a thorough inspection is performed quarterly.

If a bus is deemed unsafe, Williams said, the district “pulls it and ends its life.”

She said the district orders new buses in August with an expected delivery in December.

The district also monitors bus stops and makes changes if a stop is seen to be unsafe.

“I ride buses and routes in the mornings, and I take a look at bus stops,” Williams said.

Williams said the district monitors safety and potential visual obstructions along those routes.

District officials said they use routing and scheduling software to determine where to place bus stops so that students never have to walk more than a block.

The software uses a notification system to update parents on schedules, stops and vehicle changes, while allowing the district to centralize its transportation information.

Although the district officials said no student is aboard a bus more than 15 minutes going between home and school, Ricardo Esters said his daughter, who attends T.L. Weston Ninth-Grade Academy, on occasion has asked him to drive her to class because she found the time on the bus excessive.

Aside from special needs children, students are picked up and dropped at their designated bus stops regardless of whether a parent or other guardian is there to greet them.

“Our responsibility is to pick a child up at his or her bus stop, and drop them off at their bus stop,” Williams said.

Jessica Stepps, whose daughter is in the Greenville-Weston High School special education program, said she appreciates the district’s efforts to safeguard her child.

“If me or my oldest son is not home by the time the bus arrives, they always give me a call letting me know they’re taking my child back to school or if I’m around the corner, are willing to wait.”

Williams said that won’t ever change: “We’re here to do whatever it takes.”


Information from: Delta Democrat-Times, https://www.ddtonline.com

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