Kevin Beye, the head transportation mechanic for Marshalltown Community School District, located 50 miles northeast of Des Moines, Iowa, has seen it all during his 43 years in the industry. He discussed with School Transportation News the changes he’s witnessed in fuel choice, technology implementation, and the upcoming school year amid COVID-19 challenges.
Beye was a farmer when he became a part-time school bus driver in November 1977. He said the job helped him supplement his farming income.
He explained that the bus driving job started to evolve as the district mechanics took their vacations during the summer months. He recalled he would help out when needed in the bus garage. Gradually, he worked his way up the ranks and became a full-time shop foreman in September 1989.
Beye, who was also a nominee for the magazine’s 2020 Garage Stars feature in the August issue, said he has seen many transitions throughout the school transportation industry, all while remaining at the same district. “To be honest, I’ve never envisioned a career in this industry. When I started, it was a part-time thing because I was farming,” Beye said. “And actually, I’ve gotten back into farming. So, I farm part-time as well as working here.”
When he joined the school district, all of the school buses were powered by gasoline and automatic transmissions were just arriving. He said by1982, the transition began to diesel, with the switch completed by the mid-1990s.
Today, he said his district is transitioning back to gasoline because of the EPA’s more stringent emissions standards that date back to 2010. The standards set a precedent for increased maintenance, higher operating costs and extra work because of the after-treatment system, he shared.
He noted that the district has determined that operating gasoline buses is as economical as diesel when considering those extra maintenance costs.
“Nowadays, a gasoline engine is a lot less cluttered than a diesel engine, as far as emissions. We don’t have to deal with diesel exhaust fluid, don’t have to worry about blended fuel during the wintertime. That’s kind of nice,” he shared. “Now we can send a gas bus on a field trip in the wintertime and not worry so much about it.”
He said the district dabbled with propane school buses back in the 1980s.
“That was kind of when [propane] was in its infancy and things didn’t really work, it was kind of so-so,” Beye observed. “We didn’t have any kind of range, there was no infrastructure readily available, which there still really isn’t today [in the area]. So, we’ve just kind of stuck with gasoline.”
In addition to the district’s fleet of school buses, the geography has also changed. Beye recalled that Marshalltown used to a be rural district, but now it is operating more on a suburban level as far as transportation operations.
“Everything else is done pretty much inside city limits,” he said of the 19-square-mile service area. “That’s been a big change from when I started.”
Beye said the school bus driver shortage is affecting his school district, and occasionally he and the other two full-time mechanics have to drive. Together, they also oversee 47 school buses, 20 small transportation vehicles, and another 15 facility and food service vehicles.
He said COVID-19 has forced physical distancing in the garage, but maintaining it really depends on the task at hand. In addition to those challenges, Beye said the “derecho” windstorm on Aug. 10 further complicated matters. While the district itself didn’t see too much damage, it was forced to push back its fall start date from Aug. 25 to early September. Much of Iowa is still lacking power and internet connection.
Another challenge, Beye said, is during the wintertime most of the fleet has to sit outside. He said he’s had to deal with extremely cold wind chill while trying to get the fleet up and running early each morning.
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Beye pointed out that his district will be receiving its first three school buses equipped with lap/shoulder seatbelts in the next couple of months. Iowa was the fifth state nationwide to mandate all newly purchased school buses to come equipped with the three-point restraint systems.
Beye also noted that front-bumper-mounted crossing gates, while a maintenance headache, and crossover mirrors have aided in the safety of students.
Going forward, Beye said he hopes to log at least one more year before retiring. “I generally enjoy working with the people that I work with,” he said. “And, you know, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction you get when this fleet rolls out that first day.”
Rex Kozak, transportation director for Marshalltown Community Schools, concluded that Beye has provided a wealth of knowledge and is a complete asset to the district as he knows the vehicles inside and out.