HomeSpecial ReportsIndiana Leader McKinney Discusses Alternate Fuels, School Bus Driver Shortage

Indiana Leader McKinney Discusses Alternate Fuels, School Bus Driver Shortage

A lot has changed at Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Indiana, and society in general, since Director of Transportation Zach McKinney was profiled as a Rising SuperStars in the October 2020 edition of School Transportation News. STN caught up with McKinney at the recent STN EXPO East in Indianapolis to learn how his district and others around the state are navigating the post-COVID-19 “new normal.”

Zach McKinney, director of transportation for Hamilton Southeastern Schools and president of the School Transportation Association of Indiana, catches up on work at his desk.

That realization, McKinney said, is that the entire industry must reexamine its student transportation operations. One of the focuses at Hamilton Southeastern has been right-sizing the number of student passengers on a bus.

Historically, the school district has routed its buses for the entire 21,000 students enrolled, but not everybody rides the bus. Hamilton Southeastern has 320 buses in the fleet that operate a total of 1,500 routes across multiple tiers a day. Since the pandemic, McKinney’s department has streamlined that system, which in turn has also helped address the school bus driver shortage. For this upcoming school year, staff fully integrated in a ridership program that parents must register their kids for. Routes are constructed accordingly.

He noted that if students don’t show up to ride between the start of school on Aug. 7 and Labor Day weekend, they will be removed from the route and parents will have to submit a request to get back on the bus.

Other focuses have been on integrating more technological solutions, designed specifically to address safety. For example, McKinney said the next order of 61 Thomas Built Buses will be equipped with illuminated stop-arms from First Light Safety Products as well as 360-degree and stop-arm cameras from Gatekeeper. He noted the 360-degree cameras give the drivers an expanded view around the bus danger zone.

“Obviously, it’s the most dangerous place for those kiddos to be as they enter and exit the bus,” he said. “It gives the drivers a bird’s eye view of what’s going on.”

However, he noted with the stop-arm cameras, the difficult part is the time it takes to get prosecute illegal passing motorists. He noted that the video must first be validated as showing a violation then go to the prosecutor’s office before it begins its journey through the legal process. And that’s before it goes to trial, if at all.

Regardless, he noted that district officials are kept out of the loop after an alleged violation occurs.

“I think that what’s disheartening as a district, is once those are sent in, we’re not sure what the outcome of that is. I don’t know what the return on investment is,” he said.

But with the illuminated stop-arms, he said he immediately sees the impact of the technology. He noted that his goal is to bring more attention and focus to distracted motorists.

Zach McKinney, the president of the Student Transportation Association of Indiana, discusses the school bus driver shortage and alternative fuels on Episode 213 of the School Transportation Nation podcast. Visit to listen.

Hamilton Southeastern captured 89 illegal passing incidents in one day this spring for a National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services survey, results of which are expected to be released this summer. McKinney noted that there are even more incidents as not all district drivers participated in the voluntary count.

“Eighty-nine is an absurd number on one day out of the entire 180 days that we transport,” he said.

Additionally, Hamilton Southeastern is piloting a wheelchair securement program. It also has Tyler Drive tablets that are currently being used with sub drivers. He said the tablets show sub drivers the students’ photos, provide audible turn-by-turn directions and give all the information needed to drive the bus.

“It’s much safer than old school with a paper map in one hand and one hand on the wheel,” he said. “I think we’re up to about 20 tablets now. We are starting this school year with a small pilot doing ridership scan on with Tyler as well.”

McKinney added his staff is using the ridership data to obtain Medicaid reimbursement.

As more buses are ordered, they will be equipped with the new technology. “We’re trying to get on a [replacement] cycle of 12 years,” he said. “As soon as that bus hits 12, it’s out of our inventory, we get a new replacement.”

He added that Hamilton Southeastern upped its annual purchasing budget to $6.8 million each year, which should keep it on a steady bus replacement pace.

One more technological system the school district is progressing with is updated radio systems. All previous radio systems were replaced, and McKinney said the range of the new Motorola system is a vast improvement. Next is the implementation of the WAVE Push-To-Talk app, which would allow dispatchers to communicate with bus drivers even when they are out of normal radio range. Plus, McKinney said he hopes to expand to the Motorola Ecosystem, which would consist of placing cameras in facility parking lots that could notify him when someone enters the perimeter. The cameras can capture license plates and other parameters can be set up on when and why to send a notification.

Driver Shortage

McKinney noted that going into the new school year he’s projecting to be about 20 bus drivers short. The district ended the past school year nine drivers short and said another 13 or so drivers are expected to leave this summer. McKinney also drives a bus when needed.

“I can’t have an authentic conversation with my drivers about how to best manage a bus full of kids unless I myself have done so,” he said. “If I’m not allowing myself to be a servant leader and do that as well, I don’t know how much value I can add to the conversation. I can give suggestions and ideas that I’ve learned, but nothing impactful like the experience itself.”

The transportation facility at Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Indiana.

He added that mechanics and office staff also have their CDLs and drive when needed. McKinney said a router can sit in the office and look at a map on the computer and guide a driver through an area, but the actual on-the-street experience is different.

“I think the value is added when you yourself have driven that vehicle in that area and know how to maneuver the bus and know that it will work and matches what the map says,” he said.

He said he does have a couple of new driver applicants coming in and hosted a test drive event during the summer to get even more.

“I’m a little concerned about where those numbers are trending,” he said. “So, we’re trying to do some things to maybe get some folks in here and get them interested in driving. So far, we’ve had four folks call in this morning and express interest. We’ll see what that return is, but so far, I’m pleased with that return on investment.”

Looking at Alt Fuels

McKinney added that Hamilton Southeastern purchased one electric school bus (ESB) about two years ago and he and the driver that uses it love it.

“When we found out we were getting it, I made the drivers apply to drive it. And he was the one that applied,” McKinney said. “I put him through training. He was so excited. He gives me all the data and information.”

He added that the ESB requires very little in maintenance.

McKinney said the electric transition has been a good experience and now he and his staff have the knowledge needed to provide feedback to others. However, he added it’s hard for the district to subsidize the cost financially without the aid of grants.

“It’s not obtainable by most school districts,” he said, adding that he’s not going to sacrifice the cost two and half diesel buses to buy one electric bus.

Did you know?

Hamilton Southeastern Schools and the city of Fischers, Indiana have a partnership, in which city vehicles are fueled at the school district’s transportation facility. Fueling is tracked with a fob system, and the city pays for its portion of the fuel. This allows the school district to save money by purchasing more fuel in bulk.

He said the district continues to apply for grant funds, but it has not received any because i t does not meet federal priority status as serving a disadvantaged community.

“When I look at it from an operations side, if I can lower my operating costs on the buses, that allows me to put more money out of that same budget into my driver wages, and that’s where we need to be focusing our attention when it comes to that,” he explained, adding that he would prefer having a fleet of 12 ESBs right away.

Currently, Hamilton has a charger mounted on the facility wall. However, it completed a parking lot renovation last summer that included new location for charging stations that will allow the fleet to grow. He said he’s still awaiting a circuit board panel, which is on backorder until October or December of this year.

“It’s all piped and ready, all we have to do is pull cable and put in a charging station,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that we were set up because I knew the direction I wanted to go. I just needed a path to get there, and this was doing that.”

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Outside of his lone ESB and small Type A school buses, which operate on gasoline, his fleet largely consists of diesel.

“The emissions [regulations] are not a surprise to anyone,” he said. “If the vendors that you work with are worth their weight in gold, then they’ve already made preparations to know what this is going to look like and made those projections and helped customers prepare for that.”

He said he expects that prices of diesel and electricity will eventually balance out, with the latter falling and the former increasing.

Fueling station at Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Indiana.

Going Forward

McKinney said the future of pupil transportation is not defined. “We have no idea what’s on the horizon, but I always want to, if there’s something out there that can improve our systems,  I want it equipped on our buses. The students in our district, just as every student that rides public school transportation across the country, they all deserve the very best when they step on that vehicle,” he said.

He noted from the OEMs to the technology vendors, there are great people in the industry who have devoted themselves to student safety in and around the yellow school bus. He noted that going to conferences, like STN EXPO, encourages him to see the latest and greatest in what’s happening, while also giving him a chance to speak with other directors nationwide.

“I just want to see that continued growth, and what can we bring in?” he asked, adding that it’s the industry’s job to continue to challenge the status quo that school buses are already safe. “How can we continue to have momentum moving forward to ensure that it’s not so much safe from a collision but that it’s a safe environment for students? There’s so much that goes on these days that we need to be able to protect our students.”

He noted that it doesn’t matter the size of the district because the issues being dealt with are the same.

“That’s what’s cool. No matter what size you are, you can always come together with your colleagues and have a conversation and pull ideas from people,” he concluded.


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