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HEAD ‘EM OUT! SCHOOL BUSES ROLL AGAIN

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But just as parents and students must plunge into back-to-school preparations before the opening bell, so must those who coordinate the school district buses and their routes.

Lee Bate, Nebo's supervisor of transportation, said the most difficult task is learning where the new kindergarten children live. "That's a nightmare in and of itself."

For 25 years, Bate has orchestrated the routing and maintenance of district buses.

The problem with scheduling buses is that the names and addresses of registered children bombard Bate's office two weeks before school starts, then continue a slow trickle until the first day of class. That makes it difficult to plan the exact stops for each of the district's 114 separate routes.

Kindergarten students compound the problem not only because they're new to the school system but also because many of them don't know their addresses, Bate said.

Young children may know how to find their homes once in the neighborhood, but they can't give the driver enough clues to get them to the right neighborhood. Because of that, the district tries to educate its drivers as much as possible as to where each of its younger riders live.

That can be quite a task for drivers and administrators because the buses travel 3,000 miles a day picking up and unloading 8,081 students over a 513-square-mile area.

Finding drivers willing to take on that responsibility can be a challenge.

"We struggle to get good people," Bate said.

Potential bus drivers take several days of classes, then written and driving tests before getting a bus license. First-year drivers are required to complete an 18-hour course, while an eight-hour, in-service training course is required each subsequent year.

The district employs 62 regular bus drivers and 13 substitutes.

When not transporting children, the buses are left at one of three compounds in Payson, Spanish Fork and Springville. Drivers in outlying areas take the buses home with them. All the buses were kept at home when he started as supervisor, Bate said, but maintenance and vandalism problems made the compounds a more efficient solution.

An 84-seat capacity bus costs the district $75,000. Because they're so expensive, the district's four mechanics and working foreman work hard to keep its 84 buses in good shape. Each mechanic oversees a fleet of buses and takes pride in those buses, Bate said. Mechanics tune up each bus every 3,000 miles.

Another part of maintenance is repairing vandalism. The district tracks down vandals, both for punishment and to defray costs. A sign in the transportation office details the price tags for various bus parts: seat backs with foam, $58; seat cushions, $25; a front windshield, $155; and a side window $18. Despite its efforts, the district still pays out much more for vandalism than it recoups, Bate said.

If there is anything parents can do to help the bus drivers, it's to have their children at the bus stop five minutes early, Bate said. That not only speeds up the route, but it also is safer because children aren't running near the road.