28 Sep

Clients in the News: Tomah Area School District, Tomah, WI

By Steve Rundio
From The Tomah Journal / lacrossetribune.com 
Sep 28, 2018

School Buses in Tomah

There’s a scene in Tomah that you may not witness in other school districts. Every afternoon during the first few days of school, you can observe the superintendent of the Tomah Area School District Cindy Zahtre, business manager Greg Gaarder, and middle school Principal Tim Buss, clipboard in one hand, walkie-talkie in the other, scurrying along the sidewalks of the middle school, reassuring and comforting the little ones, cajoling, admonishing to stop running or riding bikes on sidewalks, getting on buses, checking that each kid is on the correct bus to send them on their way home.

Logistics around the middle school in the afternoon “send-off” can be a challenge. Students are shuttled from Lemonweir, La Grange, St. Paul, Oasis Christian School, Tomah Baptist Academy, Tomah Area Montessori School, Tomah School of Childhood and Noah’s Ark to the middle school. Students disembark their shuttle bus and make their way to the bus that will take them to their home. Students from Miller School and Queen of the Apostles are also walking to 24 buses parked at the middle school.

The buses then move from the middle school to pick up students at the high school before discharging students in town or to the outreaches of the countryside. At the high school, principal Robert Joyce and assistant principal Jeff Adams are outside the building monitoring the loading of the buses.

Some school districts have all their students, K-12, in one central location, sometimes in one contiguous building. Tomah has three elementary schools “in town” and four elementary schools in the hinterlands: Warrens, Wyeville, Oakdale, and Camp Douglas.

The Tomah Area School District is one of the largest districts in Wisconsin, spread out over an area of 454 square miles. Three buses are required just for the Warrens school, two for the Wyeville school and two for Camp Douglas/Oakdale. Those buses run routes only in their respective areas.

Ann and I retired from teaching eight years ago. At that time the Tomah district needed bus drivers − and still does. I had always maintained a bus driver’s license, now a CDL, since 1972 when I started teaching. “Can you drive bus?” I was asked. “Yes, I can, but only as a substitute.” Hence, I witnessed the remarkable scene at the middle school that has both the superintendent and business manager directing student on-site traffic instead of sitting behind the desk.

Unlike many school districts in Wisconsin, Tomah did not outsource its transportation system to some outside private company. While outsourcing may save money, it also means there is loss of local control and accountability. We have only to witness the distress of a neighboring school district that encountered serious problems getting their contracted school bus system operating smoothly at the beginning of the current school year. That district closed school for three days because its scheduling and routing system was a mess.

Recall that last winter, a neighboring school district delayed the start of school several hours because the diesel fuel in their buses gelled in cold weather. Their buses would not start. They called for Tomah school buses to run some of their routes. Tomah, good neighbors that we are, was happy to help.

Jeff Moody, transportation director for the past 12 years, runs a tight ship, an orderly and efficient operation.

He’s in charge of 37 buses for regular routes, three buses for special-needs students and eight vans for special needs students, and about 55 drivers. The purchase of a school bus routing computer program, Transfinder, greatly aids in setting up the routes and making needed changes. Three professional mechanics, led by David Trowbridge, along with Mike Parlow and Jim Duncan not only keep all the buses, vans and cars running smoothly, but also the district’s maintenance equipment, such as lawn mowers, snow removal machinery and dump trucks.

It’s expensive to run such a huge fleet over a half-million miles each year. The state of Wisconsin mandates that districts educate all students. Those handicapped-accessible buses and wheelchair-equipped buses are expensive and costly to operate. Six new buses were purchased this past year, helping to keep the fleet up to date.

It’s a large, impressive, well-run operation. Periodic evaluations done by outside companies have consistently given the Tomah Area School District high marks for it transportation system.