It used to happen several times a day: A flustered Cobb County parent would call to say the bus hadn’t stopped that morning to pick up her child.
Whether the child overslept and missed the bus or the driver actually did pass up the stop, school administrators had no way of knowing. So the district paid for the additional gas, and sometimes overtime, to send a bus driver back out to pick up the child.
Today, those so-called “courtesy runs” have been drastically reduced, as have parent complaints. And Cobb County school officials are crediting a device no bigger than a cell phone. The district has joined Fulton, Henry and Clayton counties in installing GPS tracking devices on their buses.
The GPS system monitors where school buses are, if and when they’re stopping to pick up children and speed limit. Administrators say the devices provide crucial data to help create a better, safer service to and from school. But driver advocates say they are an unneeded expense coming at a time when the school system can least afford it, and that the devices are being unfairly used against employees.
“This system provides a level of safety equal to a supervisor on every bus,” said Lynn Simpson, the director of Fulton County Schools’ transportation department.
Although the GPS system costs about $600,000 a year, school officials say it saves $1.2 million annually by cutting down on gas mileage and driver overtime.
Administrators have used the GPS system to track how long bus drivers are on the road, which they say has effectively lowered overtime costs by cutting down on the timesheet exaggerations or inaccuracies that sometime happen when they rely on drivers memories.The GPS devices also help the school system map more efficient routes.
They also say parent complaints are down.
“Now we know, for a fact, if buses are stopping on time,” said Rick Grisham,the director of Cobb’s transportation department. “Before, we were relying on bus driver and parent testimony.”
But bus driver advocates say managers are using the data as a weapon against bus drivers, who often face accusations of speeding, driving recklessly, getting lost and dropping students off at school late.
“Employees don’t feel, as a whole, that the technology is being used to work together but as another tool to isolate individuals and go after them for termination,” said Mark Perez, a field representative for the Georgia Association of Educators, which advocates for bus drivers.
Perez said the costs are extraordinary at a time of state austerity cuts.
“Districts are reducing bus routes they offer to parents and reducing salary and benefits to employees to make up for the budget shortfalls,” Perez said. “And yet they’re spending a large amount of money for a new system that seems to be nice, but are they the most prudent expenditures inside the current economic situation? It’s like you would like to put in a nice deck or build a new pool but your house is upside down in mortgage. It’s not good math.”
Technology for school buses has advanced drastically in the last decade.
In addition to the GPS systems, Cobb buses, for example, are equipped with “Stop Arm” cameras to catch cars driving around buses that are stopped to pick up or drop off students and cameras to monitor what goes on inside the buses.
“It’s a non-stop battle to come up with ways to keep students safe,” Grisham said.
The GPS tracker looks like a cell phone and sits in a cradle next to the driver’s seat. At the transportation department’s headquarters, a computer program compiles information about where the district’s buses have been, how fast they’re going and when it stops. It also gives alerts when the bus is going over the speed limit.
The district has used the data to create bus routes that take into account traffic patterns and speed limits.
“Minutes and seconds matter a lot in our business,” Grisham said.
Some drivers say the GPS system also can work in their favor.
“It protects us as drivers,” said Cathy Watkins, a bus driver for the last 17 years in Cobb County. When a driver accused her of almost running her off the road, the GPS system proved to her supervisor that she was nowhere near the incident. “They have it on screen now.”
The district will soon align their entire time card system to the GPS system. Grisham said that will more accurately reflect how long bus drivers have been working.
But Perez said not all the work of bus drivers is done behind the wheel.
“Bus drivers also do pre-trips, post-trips, paper work and documentation, all of which is not captured by the GPS,” Perez said.
Grisham said they will have a separate system to account for those hours.
The GPS system has the capability to track a bus along its route, which, if made available to parents, could potentially be a boon for those who struggle to get their children up and out to catch the bus on time. But the service would be an extra cost for parents and taxpayers, so administrators are currently undecided about the venture.
“I think that would be a benefit to parents,” said Sheri Lewis, who has two children in the district. “When the bus is running late, we would know exactly where it was or what the hold up was. I think it’s very useful device for the district.”