Transportation conference focuses on transporting Maine’s most precious cargo and more

Over 400 school transportation staff throughout Maine attended the 44th Annual School Transportation Safety Conference at Sugarloaf this summer. Each year school transportation teams come together to learn from national experts, State agencies and each other. Throughout the conference transportation directors, bus drivers, bus mechanics, transportation software specialist, and business managers echoed “this was the best conference ever.”

Superintendent of MSAD 60 Steven Connolly delivered a moving and motivating program entitled You Make A Difference, conveying how everyone in transportation, especially the driver, is important to each child on the bus. Connolly’s leadership philosophy that we are all in this together was profound.

Bus Competition_Tennis ball
Driver participating in the skills course with tennis balls

Pupil transportation law expert Peggy Burns delivered case study classes discussing the latest legal issues and resolutions and how to steer clear of liability. She reminded all about the importance of training as “students’ lives are in transportation professionals’ hands.” That combined with classes on communication and human resources from the National Association for Pupil Transportation, bus planning and routing technology from Transfinder Corporation, and the State school bus purchase program from Maine DOE is what brought transportation directors together to learn the latest on transportation administration from a variety of leading experts.

The Maine State Police safety and law review update on the latest vehicle regulations, safe driving practices, vehicle inspections, driving laws, and the importance of driver attention was on the agenda along with a few competitions.

The reigning National Special Needs Team Safety Competition champions, Lisa Gadway, transportation director for South Portland, and Gregg McGoff, bus driver for RSU 49, were on hand to encourage drivers who were competing in the State school bus championships and discussed the intricacies of special needs transportation.

Gregg McGoff and Lisa Gadway, national champions from Maine , were on hand to encourage competitors and discuss special needs transportation at the conference.
Gregg McGoff and Lisa Gadway, national champions from Maine , encouraged competitors and discussed special needs transportation at the conference.

A select group of bus drivers competed in the special needs competition where teams worked together through a variety of problem solving events. They were challenged to properly and safely evacuate students from the bus during emergency situations. The special needs team of Cindie Thibeault and John Johnson from Brunswick School Department won the state competition making them eligible to compete in the national special needs competition in Louisville, Kentucky next March.

Bus Competition_Stop Line
Driver participating in the driving skills course

Both on the job and during a driving competition, the school bus driver’s mission is safety. In driving competitions, participants seek to find inspection problems and maneuver a 40 foot long, 75 plus capacity conventional or transit bus weighing over 20,000 pounds through the obstacle course to achieve the best score. Russell Brackett from RSU 6 won the conventional bus driver competition and Brian Pelletier from RSU 39 won the transit bus driver competition. The trophies are now on display at their school districts and each driver is eligible to compete in the annual School Bus Driver International Safety Competition next July.

School bus drivers compete at regional, State and international competitions to refine and perfect their skills. State and regional competitions are coordinated by Maine Association for Pupil Transportation and the Maine State Police.

To compete at the State level, drivers first had to place in the top three in their regional conference competition that was held this spring. The driving skills competition focuses on two areas; bus safety inspection and driving skills. The bus safety inspection is an intense timed test where drivers complete a pre-trip inspection that includes checking tires and lights, searching for hidden mechanical problems and analyzing potential security issues. The driving skills course tests ability to turn, back up, drive offset, parallel park, stop and load students, maneuver a curb line, cross railroad tracks, and more. The course includes driving a bus into a diminishing clearance that ends with a two inch clearance, driving the tires between tennis balls on a cup that are within three inch clearance on both sides of the tires, turning corners and weaving between traffic cone impediments, and being able to stop precisely on a road mark. Each time a driver misses an inspection item or hits an object in the obstacle course, the score goes up and the low score wins. You can view a video of the school bus driver’s safety skill competition here.

School bus mechanics are at the cutting edge of modern transportation technology. They are the technology experts who analyze mechanical problems and track bus maintenance history using computers. They attend the conference to learn from each other, understand new bus technology and complete bus mechanic certification exams.

This year’s school bus driver and Above and Beyond Award winner is Donna Dumas from the Brunswick School Department who is recognized for going above and beyond in the workplace by demonstrating superior bus safety, driving skills and work ethic. The award includes the title of School Bus Driver of the Year. The Maine Association for Pupil Transportation administers the Above and Beyond Award for Maine.

The conference closing special event speaker was Michael Dorn, Executive Director of Safe Havens International. He delivered an intense case by case video analysis with discussion of how to resolve each of the school bus safety and security scenarios. The audience was fully engaged for three hours and one attendee commented, having attended this conference for 22 years, that by far this was the most profound and impactful speaker.

Conference participants learn the complex and diverse aspects of transporting the most precious cargo – our students. With 80 percent of Maine students riding the school bus, training for all transportation staff is vital to safe and efficient school transportation. Transportation training keeps school transportation teams current on school bus technology, industry standards, regulations, and transportation services that are constantly changing.

The annual conference is offered through collaboration between the Maine DOE, Maine State Police and the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation. This state-wide transportation conference supports the Maine DOE strategic plan core priority five: coordinated and effective state support.

School transportation resources are available on the Maine DOE school transportation web page.