by Larry Austin
Everybody remembers their first day of school on a school bus, said Jack Burns, the director of transportation in the Grand Island Central School District.
"We want it to be the best day," he said of his department, which has been working all summer to achieve that end when school starts on the Island Monday, Sept. 9.
While residents may think summer is vacation time for district employees in the Transportation Department, head bus driver Kelly Lesinski called this "the craziest time of year."
"It's always the question that people have. 'Do you work in the summer?' " Burns added. "And I always tell people probably the most important work that we do during the course of the year is what we get done during the summer."
Summer school started July 1, and the school district ran 10 special education runs off-Island all over Western New York through Aug. 18, Burns said. Meanwhile, the department began looking at routes for the new year as part of its non-stop process of adjusting to constant changes. A bus run one year "could have a whole different dynamic" the next year in terms of bus capacity, Burns said, with as little as one or two students changing schedules, such as advancing from elementary school to middle school.
"That one or two students extra basically is the straw that breaks the camel's back and it means that I have to start revamping things, and then it basically dominos throughout all the other routes," Burns said.
Head bus driver Theresa Alizadeh said, as a result, each year the department is "re-looking at routes, determining times and stops, using the best, safest stop for each kid."
The department has to account for the rural nature of certain routes, the extension of routes to new subdivisions, the addition of kindergarteners to the system, and the habit of parents who register new students at the last minute, Burns said. Even the schools off-Island to which the district travels make drastic changes.
"We had three schools move" over the summer, Alizadeh said.
On the Island, new speed zones at Kaegebein on Love Road and the high school/middle school complex on Ransom Road, and construction on the bridges that impacts the volume of traffic near the roundabout at Staley Road and Grand Island Boulevard, have forced adjustments.
"As much as everybody thinks that everything stays the same, we basically dismantle everything and rebuild it" each summer, Burns said. "And that takes time."
Just before school starts, route plans go to the district's 70 drivers, who then report back with suggestions, Alizadeh said. It may take two weeks for things to settle down, Lesinski added.
Alizadeh said drivers will often "pre-trip" their route.
"What you'll see is a lot of the drivers in their own cars going to check out the route, being really prepared," Alizadeh said.
One simple yet critical safety improvement in the preparation process, Burns said, is for residents to add big address numbers to both sides of their mailboxes to make house identification easier and faster.
"I'll take my own car and be out there routing. I think sometimes people call the police on me. 'Who is that strange man circling through the neighborhood at 2 mph looking at our house three times?'" Burns said. "Or you see kids and they recognize you. 'Oh, there's Mr. Burns!' They start chasing you. Or you have mothers see me coming down the street, going, 'Put the stop here! Put the stop here!'"
Burns said community-based transportation stands on four pillars:
•A bus driver teaching safety.
•Students following safety rules.
•Parents looking as a second set of eyes to help at the bus stop.
•Motorists aware of what is going on around them.
"It takes all four of that to have a safe school year," Burns said.
Motorists have to remain alert for both buses and walkers heading to school both in the morning and afternoon, Burns reminded.
"Just generally if you see a bus in an area, you know that has to be kids around coming to it, and even if you don't see the bus, you've got kids getting to the bus stop ahead of the bus arriving," Burns said.
Burns said he relies on Lesinski and Alizadeh, the head bus drivers, since the district entered into a shared service agreement this year between Kenmore schools and the GICSD transportation departments. Burns is spending some of his time off the Island in Kenmore, which wouldn't be possible without a experienced team at home.
"I'm most pleased with the knowledge and quality of work" of the department, Burns said, praising Lesinski, Alizadeh, mechanic Tim Blevins, and Denise Golebiewski, among others.
"We have quality, they know what they're doing and they know how to do it," Burns said. "Without them it couldn't be done."
One nuance added to the safety program this year, Burns said, is the Steffi Glove, developed by a Lake Shore School District driver to make bus drivers' directions more visible to both students and other motorists.
"When it's dark out, or when the sun's glaring, sometimes it's hard to see in the windshield at what the driver is doing," Burns said. Students and motorists will be better able to see the driver's signal.
"Safety a lot of time is nuances and what you've done to make things better," Burns said, noting other improvements such as LED flashing strobes on the top of buses, safety messages on the back of the buses, safety mirrors and thermal pane windows, all which the Transportation Department has added as extra factors of safety in recent years.