It’s rodeo season in Wyoming, but instead of bucking broncs and rounding up roughstock, it’s Blue Bird buses that will be wrangled in Casper as part of the Wyoming Pupil Transportation Association’s Bus Rodeo.
Bus rodeo is a driving skills competition that pits school district transportation departments from around the state against each other for bragging rights, and for the first time in a long time, the Campbell County School District’s Transportation Department is fielding a team.
The competition is not something drivers take lightly. They don’t just show up after driving a route and expect to do well. There are practices, drills and repetition of the same over and over again, as the district’s team has taken over the Aquatic Center parking lot to set up a practice obstacle course.
Lynetta Taylor is spearheading the effort for the district, and it’s a quite different look from the first time she participated in a bus rodeo. It was six years ago, and she was still relatively new to driving buses for the district. She heard about the competition and decided she wanted to do it.
“I went by myself, completely cold turkey,” Taylor said. There was no team from the district, and Taylor had no idea of the rules or expectations of the competition.
In one difficult-looking challenge known as an offset, the driver must pass between a narrow starting point and then immediately start figuring out how to get through another gate but this one, just a single bus length plus 3 feet up ahead, is offset to the side, another lane over from where the driver began.
The needle-threading required for this is intense. The driver must worry about not hitting barrels that mark off the alleyway from the start. They’re only the width of a bus plus 2 feet. But the driver must start angling early in the maneuver to get in position to make it through the offset alleyway. Not so fast, because the tail swing of the bus can’t hit those first barrels, either.
Assuming all of that went well, the driver now has to worry about not clipping the barrels of the offset alley with the front of the bus. Finally, the bus has to completely clear both sets of barrels, making sure the back end doesn’t hit the offset barrels on the way out.
That first year, in the middle of that particular obstacle, Taylor wanted to get through the barrels without knocking them around, and when she thought she might be a little too close on one side, she did the most natural thing in that situation: She put the bus in reverse. In fact, she did it about three times.
At that point, a judge from the competition informed her that going in reverse was against the rules and each time she did it, Taylor was costing herself major points.
“I didn’t know,” Taylor said.
But she does now, and she’s ready to share those hard-learned lessons with the team.
A fun challenge
The WPTA’s conference has multiple parts, including a mechanic’s workshop, a driver’s workshop and the driving competition, said Keith Chrans, who along with being the district’s transportation director also is president of the WPTA.
“This is the 50th year the organization has been in Wyoming” Chrans said.
The driving competition hasn’t always been a part of the conference, but it’s been around in probably 35 of the 50 years, he said. It came back roughly 15 years ago and has been back since.
“It’s really looked forward to by districts and by drivers,” Chrans said of the rodeo. “Even a driver who’s gone through and maybe scored very poorly their first time, they continually say, ‘What can I do better?’ The competition gives them ideas about maybe they need to work on turning skills or backing skills or whatever it might be to become a better driver.”
The conference is normally attended by anywhere from 700-800 people, Chrans said. There will only be about 400 or so people attending this year, he said, and the reduction is because of COVID-19. Of those attending, around 200 people will compete in the driving competition.
Chrans said that there isn’t a specific number of drivers required to be on a team. To receive a team score, though, there must be at least four drivers, but a team could have up to 12 members. The Campbell County School District’s this year will have eight.
The district has never forced drivers to compete, Chrans said.
The team has been months in the making. Drivers were recruited and they’re reading up on Wyoming’s rules of the road. And as the competition drew near, they took to the parking lot to recreate some of the basic challenges they know they’ll face.
“This is the first year that our trainers and a group of drivers really got excited and put together a team and practiced to be competitive,” Chrans said. “We’re excited this year to see how they turn out.”
More than one way to win
From the front seat of a bus, one can get a feel for just how difficult the task at hand is for the drivers. One of the challenges, known by a technical name of “diminishing clearance,” requires drivers to run a gauntlet of increasing difficulty. It starts as a lane that is a bus’s width (8 feet) plus 10 inches, or 5 inches on each side. It’s a 100-foot lane, and every 20 feet it narrows by 2 inches until the last 20 feet are to be driven with just a single inch of clearance on each side.
The task requires more looking the mirrors than one would first assume necessary, but it quickly becomes clear why it’s the only way to navigate the challenge. Within seconds, the marker on the ground disappears from view. The warped perspective available to the driver from the seat would leave her guessing if she were simply staring ahead. The mirror shows the reality: it squeaks by just barely without touching, and even at its most generous, the clearance is not much.
The other challenges require similar precision, and all of it is timed.
Vicki Kissack, the transportation department’s route manager, said the team wouldn’t be able to do what it’s done without support from Chrans.
“We’re very, very fortunate to have Keith as our supervisor,” Kissack said. “He’s very forward-thinking. He gives us a lot a latitude on doing special projects like this, special trainings. He’s very encouraging of us to step out and try something new.”
Kissack helped recruit the team members, all of whom except Taylor are first-timers at the annual Bus Rodeo. But she said they recruited the “cream of the crop” and she hopes for big things from them.
For the participants, it’s fun to prepare and hone their skills. But it quickly becomes apparent that those skills are just means by which they achieve a singular goal: taking care of the kids on their buses.
“If you’d told me over eight years ago that I’d be living in Gillette, Wyoming, driving a school bus, I would have said you’re out of your stinking mind,” Taylor said. “I just love it. I absolutely love it.”
Kissack said she’s as competitive as the next person, but coming home with a trophy isn’t the only standard of success.
“There’s a lot of ways to win,” Kissack said. “Being known to have a good attitude and a good skillset and be good people, that’s a win.”
Editor’s Note: Paul Hladky, a member of the Our Community Our College PAC and vice president of Cyclone Drilling, talks about the finances behind the creation of an independent community college district. This is a first in a series of Q&A interviews exploring the pros and cons of the upcoming special election.
Q: What could the Gillette Community College District budget look like and how would it differ from what it has been with the Northern Wyoming Community College District?
A: The projected budget for an independent district is about $15 million.
Basically, the roughly $4.5 million in state appropriation that came to Gillette College through Sheridan and the $1.3 million the college got from the city of Gillette and Campbell County combined each year will need to be picked up by the mill levy.
There are institutional support expenses, such as human resources, IT infrastructure and some administrative positions that we’ll need to cover too. Those costs are currently shared with Sheridan, but each will have to pay them separate. That will be about $1.7 million of the budget.
Due to the fact that we won’t be assessing the full 4 mills (the maximum allowed) and therefore not eligible for state appropriations, we will be responsible for the health insurance and retirement benefits of employees. Without speaking for the trustees, the Gillette College contribution will probably be the same structure and continuity of what the state is paying into now.
Employees won’t lose insurance and retirement, but that match will cost about $1.1 million per year.
Q: Where will the money come from?
A: Tuition and fees brings in about $3.4 million, plus another $1.3 million from BOCHES and about another $1 million in grants with the mill levy covering the rest of it.
Q: How many mills will be needed?
A: I can’t speak for the board of trustees. This will be a decision made by that elected board. But, according to our current budget requirements and with tuition and BOCHES, it looks like 2.5 mills would be enough to cover what’s needed (2.5 mills at $3.4 million per mill is $8.5 million).
Q: The trustees would be able to tax up to 4 mills. What if less than 4 mills are taxed?
A: If we do not assess 4 mills we do not get state appropriations. Cut and dry.
Q: What happens with state funding if 4 mills are taxed?
A: If we do assess 4 mills, we won’t need state appropriations because we’ll have over taxed, we’ll have too much in reserves.
There is no recapture. That’s something people have said, that we have to assess all 4 and the state would take the excess of our budget. That’s not the case. This isn’t like the school district where they have recapture.
Whatever surplus we have will go into reserve funds, capital expenditure funds — trustees will decide all of that.
Q: What role will trustees have in deciding the school’s budget and determining how many mills to tax?
A: We elect a board of trustees who we feel has our best interests in mind in terms of taxing us in line with what’s needed to have an efficient community college.
The first thing the board of trustees will be needing to do is hire a leadership team, which will be a CEO or president of the college. The president would then begin the hierarchy of administration and creating the budget. The president would then present the budget to the board. They would review the budget, accept the budget and assess the necessary mills to fund that budget.
The mills can be changed year-to-year by the board of trustees, up to 4 mills.
Q: If the vote passes in August, when would the mills be determined and when would they begin being collected?
A: The budget would first take effect on July 1, 2022, and the mill levy would also not begin until July 1, 2022.
Q: How would that affect homeowners?
A: At 2 mills, a $500,000 home would be taxed another $95 per year, which is about $8 a month, or $47.50 per mill. So the average homeowner would pay about $4 to $8 more per month on their taxes. The county assessor has a calculator on its website that shows how much it would cost depending on how many mills, the zoning and the value of the land.
There are higher tax rates for industrial land as well as mineral production, the latter of which gets taxed on the full value. A mill levied on mineral companies is $1 million per mill for each $1 billion of taxable income. So, 2 mills for $1 billion in taxable mineral income would be $2 million more in tax.
Q: How would that affect industry?
A: Industry is going to pay the bulk of it. The heavy lifting is going to be done by industry. But they’re also going to see the biggest benefits from it.
If this was going to harm the businesses or industry in Campbell County, they would be standing up right now. Nobody wants to pay more taxes, no industry wants to pay more taxes. I get that. But they see the value and they see the importance of it and they’re sitting on their hands right now.
To think that we haven’t gone out and discussed this with them would be naive. They’ve said they will be on the fence. They won’t support it and won’t come out in opposition. They are bound to their board directors and stockholders to try and maximize their profits, which doesn’t involve taxing themselves more.
But on the flip side, they see the importance of having a strong community, a sustainable community and a sustainable workforce.
Q: What will happen during accreditation?
A: The goal is to stay accredited with Sheridan College, because we’re already an accredited institution with them. Accreditation is a two- to five-year process. Gillette College students will remain NWCCD students and the district will continue to receive the state funding, tuition and fees.
During the transition, the college will operate the same as it has. The state appropriation goes to Sheridan and it’s redistributed from there.
Once accredited, the independent Gillette College takes on full financial responsibility.
Q: State statute says the newly elected Gillette College trustees and NWCCD trustees will have to agree to a plan for the upcoming transition years that the Wyoming Community College Commission has to approve. How do you see that playing out in terms of finances?
A: It could unfold seamlessly, transparently and to the benefit of students.
If I were a trustee for Sheridan and I were a trustee for Gillette negotiating this deal, understanding that accreditation has value as does tuition and fees, I feel the equitable split would be something along the lines of Gillette keeps its tuition and fees and retains a percentage of state appropriation, with the goal in mind of benefiting the students first.
Q: What happens with the mill money during accreditation?
A: Gillette College is going to have to hire some key positions, they’re going to start the accreditation process and hire a CEO, which could include bringing on a consulting firm for the search. We have to have that pot of money to cover those expenses.
Then there’s the initial start up. Once they get accreditation, you’re going to launch and you need to make sure you can build that solid budget given what your revenue stream is going to be.