A 360 Degree Look At TCAPS School Buses
By Ross Boissoneau | Oct. 12, 2017
Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) is the largest school district in the region, and as such manages the region’s largest school bus fleet. By the numbers, it’s 100 buses, each 40 feet long, 70 of them holding 71 passengers and the remaining 30 with a capacity of 77 students. Each school day, the buses traverse the 300 square miles of the district, transporting 6,000 students some 5,844 miles, or a million miles a year.
But there’s a lot more than just numbers going into the busing equation. There’s routing, equipment, and people – the 100 or so drivers and all those students, scattered far and wide across the area.
The buses serve four school systems: TCAPS, Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools (GTACS), Traverse City Christian School, and Trinity Lutheran. There are 59 routes in the morning, 69 in the afternoon. Drivers start their mornings at 5:15 to 6:30am, depending on their route, with the shift ending between 8 and 9:30am. For the afternoon shift, drivers start between 2 and 2:30pm and work until 4:45-6pm.
The complex busing routes are mapped through a combination of technology and one coordinator, or router.
“We have a routing software system, and a full-time router. The router works all summer long” to determine which bus goes where and picks up which students, says Tyson Burch, the district’s director of transportation. Adjustments and accommodations are constantly made to account for students who move into or out of the district, half-days, snow days, absences, traffic, and other factors.
Burch is always on the lookout for more drivers, and says the demands go beyond early mornings. “You need to like students, and you have to be able to drive a bus – or want to try to drive a bus,” he says.
The first step for prospective drivers is filling out an online application, followed by interviews, a background check and fingerprinting. Then it’s off to see Robin Grierson, a driver herself and one of the district’s trainers. She helps new hires learn the ropes, including how to maneuver those 40-foot long vehicles and how to deal with kids of all personalities. “You’ve got to like and respect them. I treat every one of them like my kid,” she says.
The job also has its technical demands. Drivers must understand the four-light system, the two-way dispatch radio, a camera video system with sound (four cameras minimum) – and ten of the buses have a mapping tablet to tell drivers their route with stops as a pilot for substitute drivers.
Many initially see the job as Grierson did when she started, as something to consider because it fits into their schedule – though an attachment to the position often grows. “I started because I had young school-age children,” she says. “My kids are big now, but I still get to have interaction with younger kids.”
And it’s a big responsibility; the driver is usually the first adult the child sees outside the home, and the first face of the school district during the school day. “(Drivers) say, ‘How are you? What’s going on?’ It’s critical support, how important a bus driver can be in a child’s life,” observes Christine Guitar, the district’s spokesperson.
And how long do students spend on the bus? “We try to keep it within one hour. That’s our policy,” says Burch, though he admits that can sometimes be a challenge, given the size of the district. Other factors impact it as well, such as the fact students may not cross US-31 to get on or off the bus, so a bus has to drive in both directions.
In terms of finances, TCAPS has achieved significant efficiencies and savings in its transportation budget in recent years, spending $6.7 million in 2007 and $5.1 million last year. TCAPS operates on a ten-year bus replacement plan, contingent on capital funds remaining available. Ten buses are replaced each year – meaning the oldest vehicle in the fleet at any given time will be no more than a decade old.