NORTH ADAMS — Washed, waxed and tires inflated, most of the Dufour Bus Co. fleet is ready to begin another year of transporting Berkshire region students to community elementary and high schools.
There are about 200 buses of various size and passenger capacity stationed at different parts of the county, said Michael Fletcher, who is a company operations manager.
"Our buses are ready to go," he said. "We do a lot of maintenance over the summer. Over the summer they are washed and waxed and any repairs are done. The (state) Registry of Motor Vehicles does bus safety inspections three times a year and one of those times is now, so this week we will be getting more inspections. Fluids are taken care of. And we know that our drivers, by this point, are ready to come back to work."
Dufour handles almost all the school bus services for the Berkshires and Southern Vermont except for Pittsfield, which has its own busing system.
Transporting a student population aged 5 to 18, and sometimes older, is more than collecting students at bus stops and delivering them to their destinations, Fletcher said.
"We have meetings with individual districts and we get the routes all set," he said. "Of course we always have to tweak things, sometimes there is a new student or something didn't work out in the planning. We make it a point to work with the districts."
Prepping the buses also means applying decals on elementary school vehicles. Schools often use cartoon characters, animals, or shapes and colors to make buses easier to identify for younger students, he said.
"Little kids are usually able to remember that they ride on the bus with the bunny on it or the bus with the yellow square," he said. "The buses are numbered but little kids can't always recognize that."
Kindergarten students and those in first or second grade can become confused by the number of students and buses gathered at school dismissal times. Many districts operate on an abbreviated schedule for the first day or so of school and that can be a benefit to the youngest passengers, he said.
"For example, the Adams-Cheshire district dismisses early for kindergarten during the first few days," he said. "So we have only kindergarten kids on the buses at 11 a.m.. It gives the kids a chance to get adjusted to school and riding the bus without all the other students, and it gives our drivers a great chance to get to know their faces and where they get off and on.
"These little ones are tiny and are often way down in the seats. Until they get used to things and know where their stop is, where they are supposed to get off, they don't all just pop up (when it is time to disembark from the bus)," Fletcher said. "The drivers like that opportunity to get to know the new faces."
All drivers have one fear: leaving a child on the bus.
"We take steps, we put everything we can into place so that that doesn't happen," he said. "No one wants that to happen; no one. You have to be vigilant."
Routine maintenance is costly but necessary, Fletcher said. Tires cost about $1,800 per bus, while fueling the buses can cost $5,000 per bus monthly.
During the winter months, road sand and salt, snowy, slushy boots traipsing up and down bus aisles, and shallow water pools under seats means washing the outside and the inside of the buses at least twice a week. With labor costs, and not counting major repairs such as engine or transmission work, costs to perform routine bus maintenance add up to about $15,000 per year per bus, Fletcher said.
All the drivers get a little excited about the first day back, much like the students, and Fletcher said he likes to try and get to schools to help with getting students on or off buses.
"We're ready," he said.