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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Going the extra mile

Going the extra mile

A Willow Elementary kindergarten student prepares to step onto a school bus Tuesday while Bruce Flatt of Mid Columbia Bus Company looks on. Flatt starts his workday at 3:30 a.m. with a two-hour drive through Union County to check the condition of the roads used by Mid Columbia school bus drivers. If conditions are poor, he reports them to officials with the five Union County school districts served by Mid Columbia well before 6 a.m. so they can decide whether to cancel or delay the start of school. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)
A Willow Elementary kindergarten student prepares to step onto a school bus Tuesday while Bruce Flatt of Mid Columbia Bus Company looks on. Flatt starts his workday at 3:30 a.m. with a two-hour drive through Union County to check the condition of the roads used by Mid Columbia school bus drivers. If conditions are poor, he reports them to officials with the five Union County school districts served by Mid Columbia well before 6 a.m. so they can decide whether to cancel or delay the start of school. (PHIL BULLOCK/The Observer)
(see related video at http://youtu.be/SK6YyXP-564)

Officials in Union, Wallowa counties rise early to check travel conditions for school buses 

The frigid and often inclement weather Northeast Oregon is experiencing is costing Bruce Flatt, the chief operations officer for Mid Columbia Bus Co., more than a little sleep. 

The conditions are driving Flatt to start his workdays at 3:30 a.m. with a two-hour drive through Union County to check the condition of the roads used by Mid Columbia school bus drivers. If conditions are poor, he reports them to officials with the five Union County school districts served by Mid Columbia well before 6 a.m. so they can decide whether to cancel or delay the start of school.

Flatt starts near Elgin and ends by checking bus routes in the North Powder area. Flatt is accustomed to this early morning drive because he has made it during many winter mornings for 11 years. 

“It is not a good time (of the year) to get a lot of sleep,” said Flatt, whose company serves every Union County school district except Imbler. 

Areas Flatt has found to often be trouble spots over the years include Hot Lake, the Union County Airport, Alicel and the Cricket Flat area in north Union County. Many of these areas are prone to drifting snow.

Flatt knows what to expect each morning because he checks the weather forecast for the next day closely before going to bed. He is never surprised by the weather as a result. 

Flatt is grateful for dependable forecast information available on the Internet. He said that before the Internet age, predicting the next day’s weather was often a shot in the dark.

Flatt’s counterpart in Wallowa County is Gary Moffit, the bus manager for Moffit Brothers Transportation in Lostine. Moffit also makes extensive early morning drives during this time of year, checking bus routes used by the Enterprise and Wallowa school districts, which Moffit Brothers serves. Routes that frequently have bad road conditions include those for the Alder Slope and Flora areas.

Moffit and his school bus drivers work closely with Wallowa County’s road department when conditions are bad and are always exchanging information. 

“Our radios are set on the same frequency,” Moffit said.

This means that if a tree is blocking a road, county officials can easily alert bus drivers of the hazard, allowing them to take alternate routes.

Driving conditions were particularly bad in Wallowa and Union counties on Jan. 29 when icy conditions prevailed. School was delayed or canceled in many school districts in the two counties, including Enterprise, where Superintendent Brad Royse decided to cancel school based on the information provided by Moffit.

“That was the first time in the 12 years I’ve been here that I’ve canceled school,” Royse said.

The weather forecast plays a big role in the decisions made by superintendents about whether to delay the start of school or end school early. La Grande School District Superintendent Larry Glaze said that if the forecast is for extremely bad weather, he will consider letting students go home early or canceling school. 

“We do not want to have a lot students at school who cannot get home,” Glaze said.

Glaze always decides before 6 a.m. whether to delay the start of classes or cancel school altogether. Once a decision is made, all parents are notified by a computerized phone program. It sends an automated phone message to all parents telling them of any schedule changes.

The Imbler School District has a similar automated phone system that it uses to notify parents of school cancellations or delays, said superintendent Doug Hislop.

Hislop and his staff are responsible for checking road conditions since their district provides its own bus service. Imbler High School Principal Mike Mills and School District Transportation Supervisor Jim Smith check the condition of bus routes early each morning when conditions are questionable. 

Hislop decides by 6 a.m. whether to cancel or delay school. He said it is critical to decide as soon as possible because Imbler has many students who are driven to school by their parents. Hislop works closely with Joe Valek of the Union County Public Works Department when determining whether road conditions warrant delaying or canceling school. Deciding is rarely easy, Hislop said.

“There are a lot of things to consider,” he said.

 Contact Dick Mason at 541-786-5386 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Follow Dick on Twitter @lgoMason.

 
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