TALLADEGA — Summer vacation is over, and the children are heading back to school for the start of a new year.
It’s the job of the transportation departments of the local public school systems to make sure they all get there and get home safely, and that’s a job that they take very seriously. And do very well, according to state regulators.
“Everything we do is safety,” Talladega City Schools Transportation Director Wanda Cochran said. “The state came in and did their inspections of all the buses in May, and there were no deficiencies.”
The city system has a fleet of 22 buses. Of those, 16 serve regular routes, two serve special-needs routes, and the other four are spares. All but two of the routes have permanent drivers as of last week, “and we’re working on getting those last two filled,” Cochran said.
“We’ve got substitutes assigned to them for now, but we’re hoping to have everything covered by the time school starts.”
Talladega County Schools cover a much larger area and as a result requires a much larger fleet, specifically 130 buses altogether running 112 routes, plus a special needs bus that goes to Learning Tree in Piedmont.
It is a well-earned point of pride that the county transportation department consists of eight mechanics (four on the north end, four on the south end) ranging in age from 23 to 41. Not one of them has even seen the state find a major deficiency during the annual inspection.
Greg Lucas, the shop foreman, said there are several reasons for this.
“We go to the schools every day, check on preventative maintenance, and we do our own monthly inspections on campus,” he said. “We’ve also got a relatively new fleet, with only 10 percent more than 10 years old, and all of those are spares. All the others are new or close to it. Then the state does the annual inspection, top to bottom. You are allowed to have up to 10 percent deficiency and still pass, but this current group has literally never seen one.”
Added Mechanic Josh Patterson: “Our mindset is just not to get a major deficiency, or even a small one. We take it personally.”
Lucas also added that in spite of the size of the fleet, the county is not using any substitute bus drivers as of the last week of summer vacation.
“I don’t think there’s another system that can say that within 100 miles of here.”
He added, “We have high expectations. We expect the best.”
Cochran also touted the importance of the fleet renewal program in making sure the city’s young scholars can get to and from class safely.
“Our board has been continuously purchasing new buses for the past few years,” she said. “They bought three new ones last year, so all of the 1999 models, the oldest ones, are all gone now. It’s a complete buy-in, from the board on down. And that’s important, because as a bus ages it’s more likely to break down. We need to turn them over, and that’s what we did. We set a goal to keep them updated, and it worked.”
In addition to going more than a decade without a major deficiency, county schools transportation director Jack Jackson also pointed out that the system had not trained a driver that didn’t pass the licensing test in more than 15 years. That has become a particular accomplishment here lately, since the federal government has recently required a class on driving theory in addition to the state requirements.
Assistant Transportation coordinator Phillip Cosper, who began his career as a teacher, designed the new classroom component himself, and trained a dozen new bus drivers himself, over the summer.
“I’m still a teacher at heart,” he said.
The first step, he explained, is for the driver to apply for and get a CDL permit, “then I spend a minimum of 15 to 20 hours with each of them, teaching them pre-trip planning, operations and all the policies and procedures , then send them off to new drivers school.”
The final step involves at least 12 hours on the road and a written test.
Cochran runs a much smaller department (herself and one mechanic), so she has gotten help training new drivers from Central Alabama Community College and online classes. And in addition to all the required training, she added, drivers are also required to take a physical, submit to a thorough background check and be drug tested before getting on the road.