Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer
Macon County Schools’ buses are in good hands with a skilled, dedicated team who literally hold the children’s safety in their hands. Director of Auxiliary Services Todd Gibbs has several departments under his umbrella, including the transportation department primarily housed in the bus garage.
“Our mission is to get kids to and from school safely. I think the guys do such a good job down there, that we as employees, including me, just assume and expect they’re going to run perfectly,” said Todd. “And, they are [the buses] mechanical pieces of ‘stuff,’ so they’re not always going to. Those guys do such a good job in making them run that we just expect that.”
Bus Garage Manager Randy Stoudemire emphasizes safety but is proud of the accomplishments and the camaraderie of the team of six under his leadership – all trained mechanics. Some specific roles include bus garage assistant manager, parts inventory manager, cost clerk, and fuel truck driver.
“We have a really good group of guys,” said Stoudemire. “We all get along real good. Safety is always in the front, but we have fun. When you get a group of guys together working, there’s always somebody doing something to somebody.”
Several, including Gibbs and Stoudemire have had careers that morphed into their present roles.
Meet the team
Gibbs has been a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and coach. As a coach, he drove for the games as assistant principal at the high school and at Macon Early College. He was in charge of bus drivers assigned to the schools, so there were many times he drove the buses.
“I remained aware of the buses and the drivers,” said Gibbs. “I drove activity buses to field trips, taking our kids at early college to various colleges and universities across the southeast. I’ve had my CDL [commercial drivers license] since 1998. I was hired in 1997, and I was head coach for the freshman team, trying to find a bus driver to drive the junior varsity freshman team to Robbinsville on a Thursday night. It was very difficult to find someone to do that. So I figured since I’m going over there anyway, I might as well get my license.”
Stoudemire has more than 30 years at the bus garage. He started out as an entry-level mechanic and worked his way up to bus garage manager. Stoudemire and his wife have fostered 19 children – from infants to teenagers, making a difference in their lives and providing a safe environment for them. He’s stuck around because it’s a good job with benefits that have helped with the family and “being able to help get the kids transported safely.”
A lot has changed over the years since Stoudemire started. Computerization has evolved things from the old screwdriver and hammer approach.
“We went from single light systems on buses to the multi-eight light systems to all electronic motors, and from gas motors to diesel engines,” said Stoudemire.
Assistant Manager Mike Bale entered and placed at the inspection contest held at the annual bus conference. A proud Stoudemire asked him to explain.
“The first day is a written essay, then the top 12 competitors move on to the second day with three or four different buses of hands-on inspection, and I came in seventh in the state my first time,” said Bale.
Fuel truck driver Luke Harris has worked in the bus garage for six years.
He shared what brings him the most pride: “Making sure that the buses are safe enough for all the kids to be riding back and forth from home to school in.”
Larry Green was a mechanic for almost 20 years until two months ago and shared what brings him job satisfaction: “I like the guys I work with and enjoy the job.
“The state requires every bus that is under our responsibility to be inspected monthly,” said Gibbs. “It’s a mechanical process that includes safety but it is also for the safety of the kids . . . making sure seats are covered properly and are secured down with no sharp edges, etc. The biggest thing is safety first, checking brakes, tires, all the safety equipment – emergency doors, windows and all the emergency alarms working.”
“They look underneath for the condition of the bolts holding the bus to the body, the condition of the brake drums, the actuator arms from the air chambers that actually push the brakes and make them work and tread depth,” said Stoudemire. “[They also check] drive shafts are secure, any fluid leaks that should not be there, and general inspection of lights.”
Macon County Schools also gets an annual inspection by the state. A state-certified inspector arrives onsite and goes over all the paperwork to make sure it is done correctly and goes out in the field to watch mechanics inspect the buses.
“He will go behind them inspecting the bus to make sure what we’ve actually done, then he writes reports and sends them off to Baldwin to let him know that we’re doing our job like we’re supposed to or if we’re off,” said Stoudemire. “Also, our drivers are required every morning and every evening to do a pre-trip inspection which requires them when they crank it up, to check their brake’s air pressure to make sure they’re holding, and walk around to check all their lights. When they do their walk around, they need to look under it and make sure all the tires are pumped up.”
The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) believes a well-maintained bus is key for the safety of children but is also a key factor to lowering the cost of ownership for the schools’ bus fleet. They are very pro-active in providing online learning center for mechanics. The comprehensive offering is in conjunction with bus manufacturer Thomas Built, the sole source of North Carolina’s bus purchases.
Courses have been designed to demonstrate best practices in action and to explain proper procedures. Tests are scheduled at regular intervals to verify learning, and mechanics are awarded personalized certificates upon successful completion of each course. Some major categories include Basic Electricity, Electrical Systems, DTNA Systems, Foundational Brake Systems and Warranties. “Gimme a Brake Foundation Parts” and “The 3Cs: Complaint, Cause and Correction” are among the interesting titles that attract the mechanics’ attention. Courses are also provided in Spanish.
“The guys have a couple of computers where they can get on in their spare time and do online training right here in the shop,” said Stoudemire.
How to become a MCS mechanic
Mechanics have to come with a certain skill set and mechanical attitude. Some of the present mechanics are formally trained mechanics and some are self-taught with years of experience with both gasoline engines and heavy-duty diesel.
“We just hired a gentleman who was educated at Nashville Diesel College, however, when they arrive here they are taught about things that are specific to buses,” said Gibbs. “The safety requirements we have by NCDOT are pretty extensive, and they are part of the monthly bus inspections. The mechanics are required to know what those inspections are and the safety requirements for each bus.”
“These days when you get out of high school, you can go on to a technical college and get a diesel degree,” said Stoudemire. “That really helps because it familiarizes you with the working parts of the motor and other things. I am one of the ones who came here with hands-on training from starting mechanical when I was about 12 years old, helping my dad.”
Little Known Facts
• There are 16 white activity buses and 60 yellow buses, including spares that are available if a bus breaks down and needs repairs. The yellow ones are owned by the state and the white ones were purchased through Macon County funds.
• The yellow buses stay inside the county, while the white activity buses have travelled as far as New Orleans, Florida, and Washington, D.C.
“I drove white ones myself to Savannah, to Atlanta to Charleston, to Virginia – all over the place,” said Stoudemire. “And those guys are responsible not just to keep the yellow ones running in the county, but to keep those white ones going to far-reaching places.”
• MCS scored in the top five last year for the annual State inspection.
• The buses are rolling about 2,000 miles a week and didn’t have a bus accident last year. That’s a great success story for drivers and mechanics who make sure the buses can achieve that mileage.
The new paint job on the MCS bus garage is an outward symbol of the pride exhibited within the building. From keeping buses clean to maintaining safety standards and public trust, it happens there and has been certified.
“I think the most important thing about our job is having the entrustment of the public to trust us with the safety of their kids because we are all complete strangers to them,” said Bales. “And not having to worry about who’s in charge of their kids or the vehicle they’re riding in.”
Gibbs is most proud that they are hard workers, and they care about what they do.