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Walk a mile in his shoes...Better yet, take a bus ride

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News River Falls,Wisconsin 54022
River Falls Journal
Walk a mile in his shoes...Better yet, take a bus ride
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Don't let Ron Weishaar's "aw-shucks" approach to running the school district's transportation system fool you.

Here's his opening line: "It's really pretty simple. We just haul kids to and from school."


Right. Then he gets down to business. Serious business. And the numbers begin to tell the real story.

Let's talk mileage: Last school year the district's fleet of 23 daily-run buses logged 415,030 miles.

And that's not all. Six "trip" buses that take teams to games and students on field trips logged 81,250 miles last school year.

There's more. Three district Suburbans and a van that take teachers to conferences and small groups of students on selective trips put on another 56,720 miles.

That totals well over a half million miles of driving. And that doesn't count the mileage of 37 other maintenance vehicles for plowing roads and parking lots, mowing lawns and whipping weeds.

Since December 1974 Weishaar has guided this vast transportation network.

There've been lots of changes.

Take the price of your average school bus. In Weishaar's early years, it was just over $10,000. Today, make that over $90,000.

The price of a gallon of gas was way under a dollar when Weishaar started out. Today diesel is nearly $4 a gallon.

That's a problem all drivers and households can all relate to. It's also a budget buster.

Weishaar said diesel bills for this school year will likely reach $250,000 -- about $10,000 to $15,000 more than expected.

It would have been worse but Weishaar has the district in a regional consortium that buys ahead in bulk. That locks the price at what's usually a lower level.

Until a few months ago, Weishaar said the district was paying about $2.20 per gallon for diesel. No more. The last few months the cost has risen by more than a dollar.

That adds up when you use more than 70,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year.

"It's been a shock to our system," Weishaar admitted, saying that next year's fuel budget will reflect the new reality. "The only way I can save money is if we don't go someplace, like taking the football team to a game or another sports team somewhere else.

"We're a service. We go where we're asked to go."

School buses are gas hogs -- even modern ones. In fact, with heavy new anti-pollution devices in the muffler to capture soot and convert and collect it to ash, Weishaar says gas mileage has probably dropped.

"It varies but it's in the 7-9 mile per gallon range," he said. "A trip bus heading on the highway to Eau Claire might get 10 or 11 miles per gallon.

"I've had a bus get as high as 13 (mpg) going to Superior but we had a tailwind that day," Weishaar laughed.

On an average day, between 1,800 and 1,900 youngsters are picked up by bus at their homes in the morning and brought back after school.

The district's lineup has more than 50 certified drivers, including 23 regulars for the daily routes. Others are used for field trips, as substitutes, as reserves in emergencies, and some are asked to do snow plowing and grass cutting.

Each driver must first pass a physical, a written test and a driving test.

Weishaar's longtime assistant at the school bus garage is Joanne Maier. Virginia Hilden is the part-time secretary. Karl Schotter and Phil Rohl are the mechanics.

"If we had the room, we would be asking for a third mechanic," Weishaar said. "But we only have the two maintenance bays."

With new buses getting so costly, the school district is keeping old ones longer. Older buses mean more upkeep.

"It's very much of a challenge and it's getting harder every year," Weishaar said.

At one time the district bought three new buses annually. Now it's two. One is a conventional school bus and the other is a slightly more expensive bus that's designed to carry luggage for sports teams.

Keeping older buses longer means that instead of putting them to pasture after 150,000 or even 200,000 miles, they're maintained until reaching 250,000, even 300,000 miles. After reaching that stage, a bus is typically 12-15 years old.

Weishaar points out that 300,000 miles for a school bus translates into about 600,000 for the typical family car.

"We have to run our buses cold, use them two hours a time, and drive constantly in stop-and-go traffic," he said. "That's a lot of wear and tear in the worst possible weather conditions day in and day out."

Rust is the biggest headache.

"Most of the time we can keep them running mechanically -- the engine, the transmission -- but I can't do anything about the body and other parts that keep rusting out," Weishaar said. "The body struts underneath rust, the brake lines, the shocks can fall off.

"Inside the seats deteriorate. The plywood part of the floorboard warps. Dashboard components, the lights, give out due to dirt and moisture. On the outside, we put on replacement metal panels. The state inspectors come and check. If they can poke a finger through the rust, we put on another panel."

During the school year Weishaar said the goal is "to keep the buses running." Come summer, the major repairs get underway.

"Safety is always our No. 1 priority," he said. "Our drivers always work as a team to help each other ensure safety on a daily basis."

Weishaar said busing school children is more complicated today.

"It's hard to keep up with all the different family schedules," he said. "You've got more parents who are divorced, and so we often have multiple locations where we need to pick up and drop off the children, depending on the week or the day and who's in charge of the kids. Sometimes it's at this daycare or that one, other times a certain neighbor or a relative.

"I tell you, I hate computers but we couldn't manage the (pick up and drop off) instructions if we didn't have it all down in the computer. We used to write it on a piece of paper, but that could get lost and then you go by memory, and that's bad."

Busing in 2008 River Falls also means navigating more traffic than it did in the mid-1970s.

"You have to leave more time to get around on the routes," Weishaar said. "There are more cars and were among all those cars. That also exposes us more to accidents."

While the school district's enrollment has barely grown in the past 15 years, there are many more rural houses and developments, like Troy Burne between River Falls and Hudson.

"So what that means is more bus mileage because the homes are more scattered in the outlying areas," Weishaar said.

Meanwhile, the school district's bus garage, 805 W. Locust St., is nearly 50 years old and cramped.

"We're running out of space. We've outgrown our need in several areas," Weishaar said. "As it is I don't have enough room to put all the buses under the roof."

Leaving buses parked outside doesn't help the rust factor. It can also lead to occasional vandalism, such as broken windows.

The 61-year-old Weishaar has a blue-collar, independent streak.

"I get along with the district administrators just fine, but I try not to talk to them more than I have to," he said. "As for myself, I don't just sit at a desk. I don't consider myself an administrator. I'm more of a nut-and-bolts type of guy, someone who likes to pull wrenches, gets his hands dirty and maybe get a little grime under his fingernails."

Weishaar admits the most difficult part of the job is its 24/7 nature.

"I even take calls at home from parents on a Sunday night saying their child is sick or they're going away on vacation and won't be needing the bus," he said. "I've been here too long. Everyone knows how to reach me."

Weishaar may also be out all night when a winter storm approaches. That includes helping his crew plow school lots in the wee morning hours, then test driving roads for safety.

After that he may phone other school districts and county highway departments, check the latest weather forecasts before making a recommendation to the superintendent about whether to open or close school for the day.

"Of the seven superintendents I've gone through, none have ever overridden my suggestion," he said. "Ice is more of a problem for buses than snow. We can go through a lot of snow, bucking over it, but a heavy bus can slide pretty bad on ice and then other drivers can also go sliding into us. So you really have to look out for that."

And bus accidents are a worry.

"That's by far the toughest thing to deal with, especially when there's injury," Weishaar said. "And the problem is that in a car versus bus, the big bus usually wins.

"It's a relief to go to an accident and see its only metal damage. That kind of thing can be fixed. It only takes money."

Weishaar would like to retire in another four or five years.

"I'll stay on as long as I stay healthy," he said. "If I quit now my wife would kill me. I don't think she wants to put up with me all the time for now."

Ron and Linda Weishaar live on a 240-acre farm in the town of River Falls. They raise beef cattle.

When he eases into retirement, Weishaar will devote more time to farming, hunting, horseback riding, being with his two grandchildren and relaxing at a family lakeside cabin near Danbury.