Culpeper’s school buses captained by ‘unsung heroes’

Thousands of Culpeper children climbed aboard big yellow buses this morning for a ride to school.

The arrival of the buses to pick up their children on time, the training of the drivers and safety during the ride is something most parents take for granted.

However, there are myriad details and plans put into place before a bus takes to the road to help insure that each trip will be a timely and safe one.

With thousands of children and hundreds of thousands of miles driven each year there is always the chance of something unforeseen happening.

Such was the case earlier this year when veteran driver Jerry Heddings passed away while driving his route No one on his bus was injured. (See statement at end of story)

It is the job of John Walsh, first year director of transportation for CCPS, and his team to place trained drivers in mechanically sound buses for their assignment of carrying the precious cargo of Culpeper children safely to and from school and activities.

A key asset in assisting Walsh with his duties is Anne Martin, assistant director of transportation.

“She does the scheduling for all the bus routes,” Walsh said of Martin. “That is a very finely balanced operation and with Anne’s experience I would be crazy to stick my nose in there.”

Two key places where Walsh did “stick his nose in” are morale building and inventory procedures.

The transportation office and the facility where the mechanics work both got a new coat of paint and new office furniture.

“We want to make this a place where people like to work,” Walsh said.

Inventory control was an area where Walsh believed some updating would be beneficial.

“We are now using computerized inventory control,” he said. “When I started we had parts from 1980 buses. Sometimes we ordered something that we already had in stock because we didn’t know we had the part.

“Now, when we get an order for a part, the computer takes it out of inventory and notifies us when we are getting low. We are doing a better job of cost control and managing the entire process.”

Maintenance is a major component of bus safety.

“We inspect every bus every 30 days,” he said. “Faulty batteries, bad transmissions and air brake problems are some of the most common issues we encounter. We also get a lot of loose mirrors from the gravel roads some buses travel.”

Extensive experience
It was Walsh’s varied background that led the Culpeper County School Board to appoint him director of transportation after the retirement of long-time department head Fred Rankin last spring.

Walsh taught math in the district for nine years, but he was also a pilot in the Marine Corps for 25 years before retiring. He test piloted helicopters and was very involved in their maintenance. He also helped mobilize reservists to go to Iraq and worked for a time at the Pentagon where he said he was “very involved” in budgeting.

“I came through the career switcher program to get into teaching,” Walsh said. “It was quite a transition. One minute I was preparing Marines to go to war and the next minute I was telling Jimmy to spit his gum out.”

Walsh said that the school board felt his experience talking with parents, doing budgets and being involved in maintenance would make him a good fit for his current position.

“I was a basketball coach at Culpeper Middle School and I ran with the drivers all the time,” Walsh said. “There is so much more than just picking up kids and dropping them off.”

Adding GPS
“The county is so big and the majority of schools are in town,” Walsh said. “You can’t overcome the time and distance problems. We go all the way out to places like Richardsville and Lignum to get just a few kids.. And we go to the border with Rappahannock County.
“The stops at Lakeview (on Route 522) are the most efficient. Two stops and the bus is full.”

Those distances and potential cost savings are one of the reasons Walsh said he is excited about the project to add GPS to all of the buses.

“We plan to add 110 units,” he said. “Loudoun and Fairfax counties use GPS and there is a huge savings. We can track buses in real time and make more efficient routes. We can also tell how long buses are idling and burning fuel. State law says that if buses idle more than five minutes they should be shut off.”

Walsh also sees an added safety feature with the GPS, due to be installed soon.

“In an emergency we will know exactly where a bus is,” he said. “Every year drivers fill out a sheet with the times they reach each bus stop. But this will record the times automatically. It is also a safety feature. If a bus goes missing we can find it. If a bus goes off route, an alarm sounds. It provides a better safety measure for both students and drivers.”
Walsh said about 60 buses go home with drivers to save on fuel costs and the GPS would also help if one of those buses needs to be located.

Two frequent questions
Walsh frequently receives questions about buses not having seat belts. The other common one is why schools are closed several days after a storm when the weather is good.

“Seat belts are difficult to get students to use and the buckle can be swung around to hurt someone,” he said in response to the first question. “Buses are already designed with seats with higher backs to give students a protective area if they are seated facing forward.”

In responding to the second question, Walsh turned to Martin.

“We have more than 200 miles of gravel roads,” said Martin. “There are also roads that ice over or flood. We have to be able to get the buses to the children.
“We have some great people driving and they want conditions to be safe. One driver ―Elnora Lightfoot ―is in her 48th year. She has driven parents, their kids and maybe even their grand kids. She has been driving the same route since I’ve been here, which is 39 years. She knows everybody in Richardsville. We have 12 drivers who have been here over 30 years. The drivers really get to know their routes and they know when conditions are safe.”

While Walsh appreciates the technological innovations, he said it’s the drivers who make the difference.

“The quality of the drivers who safely move students to and from schools each day is newsworthy,” he said. “These drivers are the unsung heroes of the school system.”

By the numbers:
Students moved daily: 5,456
Number of tires used in a year: 148
Yearly cost of tires: $60,000
Average age of buses: 8.2 years
Fuel cost: Unleaded – $61,595; Diesel – $587, 973. Total: $649, 567
Maintenance workers: 5
Buses: 135
Drivers: 94
Routes: 122
Miles driven 2011-12: 642,471
Earliest pickup: 5:55 a.m.
Longest route: Just under two hours
Other school system vehicles maintained: 50
Source: Culpeper County Public Schools Transportation Department

Statement from John Walsh, director of transportation for Culpeper County Public Schools, regarding the bus driver who died on duty earlier this year:
“On Nov. 9, Jerry Heddings passed away after a minor bus accident from an apparent medical condition.

Jerry was a very safe and conscientious driver and was well liked by his peers. He started driving school buses for the Culpeper County School Division on Aug. 20, 2008. He greatly enjoyed driving students and was very popular with those who rode his bus.

Drivers are required to pass a thorough physical each year according to standards set by the Virginia Department of Education.

Jerry readily passed his physical last summer and was very excited to be driving again this school year.”