LAND O’ LAKES Each school day in Pasco County, 37,000 students board about 400 school buses and, if all goes well, there will be no busted radiator hoses on State Road 54.
No broken fan belts on U.S. 19.
No dying engines in Zephyrhills.
“Our success is an uneventful bus trip,” said Tad Kledzik, the school district’s supervisor of transportation maintenance.
That success isn’t happenstance. A crew of mechanics works year-round to help students get to their classes, field trips and sporting events on time.
“Some days this is a little nuts,” Kledzik said. “We get through it.”
He could use more help keeping that bus fleet on the road, though.
The district is short five mechanics and a sixth job could come open soon.
Filling those positions isn’t easy because it’s essentially a mechanic’s market. The school district faces tough competition from the private sector and other school districts, Kledzik said.
Retaining mechanics can be tough, too, because they can be lured away by an employer who pays more.
Pasco is reviewing its bus-mechanic pay scale to determine whether it can be made more competitive, Kledzik said.
Right now, hourly pay starts at $12.05 and ranges up to $15.50 for those with 18 years experience. Mechanics also qualify for a slight pay boost if they have certain certifications.
Anyone interested should first fill out an online application form on the district’s website at www.pasco.k12.fl.us, Kledzik said. Then watch the website for job postings.
The vacancies are no longer posted because the district is considering candidates who applied after an initial advertisement, but some are likely to be reposted, Kledzik said.
Those hired would work out of one of the district’s five bus compounds scattered across the county.
As a group, the district’s 400 buses travel 42,000 miles a day, which Kledzik likes to point out is equivalent to a trip to Seattle and back — seven times.
The district also keeps 40 spare buses. In addition, the mechanics service and repair other school district vehicles, such as trucks and driver’s education cars.
The district employs 23 mechanics, a ratio of roughly one mechanic for 19 buses.
Those mechanics do just about everything short of overhauling a transmission. Luckily, that’s not needed too often anyway.
“These (school bus) transmissions are typically very good,” said Emmett Thompson, shop coordinator for the district’s bus compound in Land O’ Lakes.
Thompson came to work as a mechanic for the district about 18 months ago with something of an unusual history. His background was in aviation – first in the military and later in the private sector.
Soon Thompson was promoted to shop coordinator, but he’s not always behind a desk.
“You also have to get dirty every now and then,” he said.
Wayne Smith is the parts specialist at the Land O’ Lakes bus compound. He keeps an inventory of some of the most commonly needed parts — such as filters and belts — but orders others as needed.
“We don’t have to jam pack the shelves,” Smith said.
Usually, parts deliveries are quick, but on occasion a special part might take days to arrive, sidelining the bus. That’s when those spares come in handy.
Each bus receives a service checkup every 25 days. The goal is to head off potential problems, Thompson said.
Still, on occasion a bus breaks down while hauling children. In those instances, a mechanic goes out in a service truck to try a quick repair — or at least enough of a repair to get the bus back to the compound — while another bus is dispatched to finish transporting the students.
The district doesn’t own tow trucks because roadside breakdowns that require a tow are infrequent. When necessary, the bus compound contacts a private towing service.
Just like the family car, school buses don’t run forever. The state encourages a 10-year replacement cycle, but tight budgets caused Pasco to extend that to 12, Kledzik said.
“The older these things get,” he said, “the more involved the work is, the more expensive the work is.”