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Keeping bus wheels going round and round

By By Janet Little Cooper
School bus drivers are happy to see the wheels on the bus go round and round all throughout town, after they have sat vacant for the summer months.
Buses began to frequent area roadways yesterday as Florida students returned to school. Drivers for Escambia County, Ala., schools were still picking their buses up Monday to have them ready for their first run of the year tomorrow.
Although, only a small amount of school buses are utilized during the summer months for special programs, summer is the busiest time of the year for school bus garages.
"People still see buses on the road and wonder what they are doing out there," Escambia County, Ala., transportation supervisor said. "We still have buses running during the summer, but that is not why summer is our busiest time."
It is during the summer months that every one of the 39 buses and seven spare buses come home to the bus garage Davis manages in Atmore.
"Our work really kicks in when the drivers bring the bus in at the end of the school year," Davis said. "This is a major re-haul time. The buses are inspected every month, but during the summer they get a total overhaul. We had to send one back to the manufacturer for a recall. We tend to have more problems with the newer buses rather than the older ones."
One of the many repairs needed on a school bus during the summer is the repair or replacement of seat covers.
According to Davis, seats that he could recover or replace 20 years ago cost less than $20 opposed to almost $80 now.
"That is one of the reasons the cost keeps going up on buses," Davis said. "To buy a regular school bus with no air conditioning, it cost around $56,000 per bus."
Every part of the bus from under the hood, to the interior to under the bus is checked during the summer months.
For the first time in Davis' 27 years at the bus garage, the Alabama State Inspector found no major deficiencies in any of the 97 buses in the garage.
"This is something that I have been shooting for all these years," Davis said. "The state inspector comes once a year and this year we made it. He found nothing. Zero deficiencies out of 97 buses."
In addition to the maintenance of the school bus fleet at the Atmore garage, Davis is also responsible for establishing the routes each bus will take and making schedules.
"Summer and the first two weeks of school are horrible," Davis said. "The phone will ring off the hook. We base our routes on the year before and then I go out in the summer and ride the routes looking for any hazards or additions. I will be on the road for those two weeks making sure the routes are correct."
Davis inherited most of the school bus routes 27 years ago when he started working at the garage, but he is quick to add that the routes change every year.
"When school starts you have new people everywhere and I have to make sure they have a bus," Davis said.
Davis combs every route during the summer months to ensure that there are no hazards or obstacles drivers will have to face. The school board even equipped him with a pole chain saw for him to cut any limbs that may become a problem. He refers larger jobs to the city or county crews.
"I ride the routes over the summer to note any changes," Davis said. "And I will ride them again for the first two weeks of school until we have everyone taken care of. I don't do this as much anymore, but I used to get up at midnight and ride the routes after a thunderstorm or shower to make sure that the roads were safe enough for our drivers and children. The roads are so much better now."
Davis began assigning buses last Friday to his drivers in preparation for school tomorrow. A bus is hardly ever returned to the same bus route.
"I keep up with the mileage on each bus," Davis said. "I have a lot of long routes out there, so I try to rotate the buses from the long routes to a shorter route to keep the mileage down and more use out of the bus. I am trying to save the buses."
As drivers poured into the garage to pick up their bus, Davis provided them with everything they needed to clean the bus up for its big day.