Publicizing the event was easy: Florida has 67 counties, each county has one school district, and each school district has one transportation director, who is also an FAPT member. “So, through FAPT, we were able to contact the directors, the person in charge of transportation,” Callahan says. “We had some very small districts, and we had some very large districts. In some smaller districts, basically, if they participated in the summer mechanics workshop, both guys shut down the shop and came!”
It’s a tribute to the success of the Workshop that in only its second year it began to experience growing pains. “I think we had about 130 folks participating that year,” Callahan says, “but that was over our target, and we had problems with the accommodations. The Center only has a certain number of rooms available to us, and that was a limiting factor.”
Distance was also proving to be a limiting factor, as Live Oak, located in the panhandle, was too far for many technicians who lived in south and central Florida. “We did realize that it was starting to get troublesome for some districts to send their mechanics so far for training,” Callahan says. “They wanted the training, and they were participating, so we started to look for another area. Paul Sparks said they had a community college in his area—South Park Community College, in Avon Park—that owned an old hotel that they could use for dorms. The college is glad to have us, because they’re using the facility year-round. So, with the exception of one or two years, we’ve come back to South Park Community College ever since.”
ADDING A TWIST
Paul Sparks, the man who suggested using South Park for the second week of the Workshop, is fleet manager for Highlands County Schools and the current committee chair for the School Bus Technician Qualification Standards Committee. As such, Sparks is the guy manning the controls for this year’s Workshop, and he’s added a new twist into the event.
Previously, the FAPT Committee offered the entire week to the school districts—instruction, food and lodging—as a comprehensive package at one low price. This year, instead, the school districts are responsible for booking rooms for the technicians they send to the Workshop. It’s a minor change, but it has relieved the Committee of a huge bookkeeping burden, and allowed them to concentrate on what really counts: the program of instruction. For some districts in the state, the Workshop is their entire training program for the year, so the course content has to hit the bull’s-eye every time.
“We start (planning) in August, right around the time school kicks off,” Sparks says. “We go through our evaluations that come in from our technicians, and we see what they’re looking for. We start building our program then. We start to establish the groups and class sizes and see where we’re going. Sometimes you have to make changes—one manufacturer can’t participate, and you have to line up a substitute—that’s why we learned many years ago that you need to lay the groundwork before you do anything, so you know who’s coming and how big it’s going to be, what the charges will be to the districts, what the events will be.
“The one thing that hit all of us—and we were very aware of this when we closed last year’s workshop—is the change to the new engines,” Sparks says. “All the manufacturers for ’08, ’09 and ’10 have to make some serious changes to their buses because of emissions regulations. Therefore, this year our technicians are asking for this; they want to know what’s making these new buses tick. That was the driving factor this year, and that’s why this week International (IC), Florida Unlimited Bus, Thomas and Blue Bird bus companies are here, and their trainers are all demonstrating their new engines to our techs. We have 30 technicians in the IC class, 30 in Thomas and about 25 in Blue Bird.”
The three different engine classes are meeting for three days, so those 85 technicians are getting a pretty intense classroom experience, but the flexibility of the Workshop format makes such intense study possible. “There’s so much to be known that we decided that’s all we’re going to give them that week,” Sparks explains. “The manufacturers want to teach the technicians all about the heart and soul of the engine and what makes it tick. Three days is probably not enough time, but it makes them aware and makes them better prepared for what’s coming at them.”