Aug 13, 2013

For First Student, students and their bus drivers come first

From, Weatherford, TX
Posted Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2013
By Melissa Winn

As Weatherford students embark on their first day of school, the name on the outside of the bus will be new but the faces driving should be familiar.

That's because even though Weatherford ISD changed its transportation provider for the upcoming school year and beyond from Durham to First Student, many of Durham's drivers were hired by the new company.

“We went through the same process that anyone wanting to get hired would go through except we were preferred,” said Weatherford's Dan Linden, a former Durham driver who is now with First Student. “They wanted all the drivers they could get because as they said - and we already knew - nobody knows your route, nobody knows your kids, nobody knows the town like you do and that's what First Student wanted was us.”

That's the way it should've been but wasn't always the case with his former employer, Linden said, and everyone is “ecstatic” with how they've been treated so far.

“It's been fabulous,” he added. “Very professional, very respectful...we're ecstatic.”

Weatherford location manager Steven Bridges said everyone has been working to make the transition as smooth as possible and that they've been busy training and getting the facility up to speed for the first day of school.

“Everyone has been willing to help and make this a success, from the drivers to the school district to the other First Student employees,” he said. “It really, honestly, is a great group of people that are committed to making this transition be a success and doing everything we have to do to be ready for day one.”

Linden, who was part of the negotiating team for the drivers, said 80 percent of the drivers are coming back on their same route and that the whole attitude is completely different. That pays dividends for the students and parents.

“The whole attitude toward the drivers in talking to our manager and upper management is different. It's an attitude of respect, of dignity, talking to you like you're an adult. It's a 180 degree turn,” he explained. “You're going to have drivers with better attitudes. The first thing we fix in the morning when we pre-trip ourselves is to make sure the bus is safe but we also need positive reinforcement about the stuff that you need to make sure you're ready to go.

“First Student is going to be a difference for us.”

Linden was, however, quick to point out that there will be some new drivers.

“You'll see some new faces because this job is...people move on, they do something else, they get this job to get to a point where they can do something else or they're retirees that just decide they've had enough; it's all sorts of things so the job does have a turnover rate,” he said. “We don't expect to see the turnover rate we had at Durham though.”

Bridges agreed that his company believes in keeping its employees happy, which translates to a safer environment for children.

“Our goal is to maintain the least amount of turnover as possible and the benefits of that are multi-sided,” he said. “The kids knowing their driver and the driver knowing their kids is very important. You know the little things that each child does or doesn't do so it's safer and easier to manage.”

Linden, who has driven his particular route for three years, whole-heartedly concurs.

“I don't know how to quantify that other than I know there's been studies done where the familiarity, the consistency always makes for a better trip,” he said. “If you know the kid, then you understand each other, he/she knows what to expect from you and you know what to expect from them and you may already have a relationship with the's always better.”

And while Bridges has only been with First Student about a month, he has a 13-year background working with FedEx as an operations manager and understands that relationship.

“I used to be in charge of a fleet so there's some similarities there,” he said. “Obviously, this cargo is the most important cargo in the world as opposed to boxes but managing a fleet of vehicles and drivers and the logistics of that work is my background.”

First Student will add 26 new buses to the current fleet and install additional safety features, which include GPS tracking systems, cameras to monitor on-board activities, the Child Check-Mate electronic reminder system designed to ensure no child is left unattended on a bus, and crossing gates to allow children to cross in front of the bus at a safe distance.

"Student safety is our number one priority," WISD superintendent Jeffrey Hanks said in a press release. "We are confident First Student will deliver the high-quality transportation services we expect, while continuously looking at ways to make the experience even better for our students who ride the bus."

First Student will also provide computerized routing to ensure efficiency, which supports the company's vision of keeping people moving and communities prospering.

"First Student is dedicated to forming true partnerships with our school districts," said Chris Pedde, First Student area general manager. "We are pleased to have the opportunity to serve Weatherford Independent Schools and its students with safe and reliable transportation for many years to come."

Though most of the drivers that are needed for the first day of school have been hired, Bridges said the recruiting process is ongoing. He also said that 50-60 buses will be used and that route information was not available at press time but will be at in the coming days.

Linden said the buses he and the other drivers have seen are in great shape and that everyone is excited about the next few years.

“They're clean and while they have the normal stuff [mostly cosmetic] the buses we've seen have been in great shape,” he said. “The consensus is everybody that has had an interaction with First Student is refreshed and surprised.

“It's the way it's supposed and it's not how it was.”

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