Photo by Johnny Jackson
Donald Griffin, a certified mechanic with Clayton County Public Schools, has been working on automobiles since he was 16. The 71-year-old plans to retire in November after 10 years with the district’s transportation department.
JONESBORO — Donald Griffin has been working on automobiles since he was 16 but none are quite as treasured as the school buses he works on these days.
The big yellow machines transport 27,000 young people to and from school daily in Clayton County, and he helps make sure it happens as smoothly as possible.
“I enjoy it,” said Griffin, 71. “I enjoy looking for what’s wrong with them and making sure they’re fixed.”
He is one of 15 certified mechanics on staff with the district’s transportation department.
Griffin plans to retire in November after 10 years with the department. But before he does, he is helping with year-end summer inspections in the 390-bus fleet.
Each bus undergoes a 45-point mechanic inspection that includes examinations of its safety devices, front-end wheel alignment, drive train, tires, body and brakes.
“Brakes are crucial,” said David Lewis, the department’s shop manager. “Even if we can’t start the bus, we can’t go without brakes.”
Lewis emphasized the primary focus with inspections is not necessarily to have buses that are operational but to have them operate safely.
His assistant, shop supervisor Christopher Mitchell, coordinates the inspections.
Mitchell said the summer inspections are part of about a dozen check-ups any given bus undergoes in a year.
Buses are inspected about every 20 days during the school year, he said. There are also inspections each February for the fleet.
Transportation Director Harold Walker said the fleet stays busy throughout the year.
Several buses are in operation for the district’s summer school program, he said. But there are 325 active buses traveling as many routes during the regular school year logging a combined 14,000 miles round trip each day.
Walker said summer is the best time to perform maintenance and repairs on buses.
Efficiency, technological evolution
Buses these days are more advanced than the rolling pews of the past.
While the district’s buses do not meet luxury stage coach standards, they are relatively advanced with onboard air-conditioning.
The department’s $16 million budget is partly devoted to the technological advances.
Walker said a significant portion of the transportation budget is relegated to fuel costs. He said the department bids out an annual contract for fuel and pays a discounted rate. Its fuel — at $3.20 per gallon for diesel and $2.89 per gallon for gas — is nearly a dollar cheaper than retail.
Modern communications systems also help with the department operate more efficiently, he said.
Bus drivers have access to two-way radios to communicate with dispatchers about their route schedules and unexpected events that might happen on their routes.
The buses are outfitted with Global Positioning System devices to track bus locations. They are also equipped with multiple video cameras.
Walker said video recorders were mounted at the front of school buses back in the early 90s and evolved over time from video cassette cartridges to computerized systems. He said the district is phasing in an all-wireless system to capture live feeds at various angles on the bus.
The new technology will save his department time and labor in the video retrieval process, he said. Officials will be able to get digital video as quickly as they can return an email.
He said having cameras on school buses allows bus drivers and officials to get a handle on 95 percent of behavioral issues and helps them investigate any other occurrences during the day.
Walker said there are also plans to incorporate stop arm cameras on buses as soon as the upcoming school year.
Bus stop safety
The cameras would capture images of those who illegally pass buses and endanger the lives of children as they enter and exit the bus.
He said transportation is provided to 27,000 students living 1.5 miles or more from their designated schools and illegal passing has been a problem in neighborhoods where many of them board and exit buses.
Parents of student riders also have a role to play, he said. There have been safety issues in which parents were not at the school bus stop to pick their pre-K to first-grade students and up. He said parents must be at the school bus stop each day for their younger children.
“When school starts please be mindful when children are catching the bus,” Walker said. “Watch them as they cross the street. And don’t run school bus stop arms.”