When Anthony Thomas started his one-station-wagon special-needs transportation business, back in 1933, he could hardly have envisioned that, 75 years later, the company he started would be standing on the precipice of a major breakthrough in public transportation.
Nevertheless, that’s the truth: today, Community Bus Services, led by Anthony’s nephew, Terry, is in the vanguard of the transition from single-purpose, schools-only transportation to a multitasking concept that serves the entire community.
“There are 14,000 school districts in the United States,” Terry Thomas says. “Each represents a community. My job is to convince the community they should take a new look. This new model is saving money, providing employment, and working better, using local dollars to attract federal funds. It’s a synergy.”
It’s also an idea that’s caught the admiring eye of those who watch the industry. “Terry Thomas’ vision about transportation service in the early 21st century represents a paradigm shift and has led to the emergence of an entirely different transportation service model,” said editor Bill Paul in School Transportation News. “Clearly, he is more than a school bus contractor. He is a visionary who has extended the reach of his experience, management skill, intellect and perseverance to the greater community.”
Anthony Thomas’ first employee, those many years ago, was his brother James – Terry’s father. In 1970, still in high school, Terry Thomas began driving for his father. Five years later, James Thomas offered the school bus routes to his son. Still not sure what he wanted to do with his life – leaning toward dentistry and taking heavily science-oriented courses in college, but still not decided – he agreed. At that time, the company was providing service to 40 special education students in two vans.
A few years later, driving a load of youngsters in a 15-passenger van, Thomas became an instant “safety activist” when a hearing-impaired student departed his 15-passenger van and narrowly missed being hit by a passing car.
Thomas researched the laws governing the use of vans in school bus service and found that though they were the vehicle of choice for many transit programs, vehicles designed to carry 9 or more passengers were illegal in Ohio. His next move was to approach the Youngstown Board of Education and attempt to convince them to affirm the yellow bus as their vehicle of choice for transportation of students with disabilities. It took ten years, but he prevailed: the board adopted a yellow-bus solution for their 1,000 special needs students. He bid on the school bus service and won the contract.
In 1982 Terry and his brother, Richard, a certified public accountant, purchased the company. Terry, the majority owner, is president; Richard provides accounting services while maintaining his own CPA practice. The brothers credit legal advisor Tom Binaut, driver trainer Kathy Baltes, and the late Paul Hickson, who served for 22 years as operations manager until his death in 2009, keeping the company on a steady course.
By the early 1990s, the special-needs transportation service had expanded to include transportation management, planning consultation, regular-education yellow-bus service, and paratransit bus service. It was time to rename the company, which became Community Bus service. Thomas says the key to his concept is “appropriately integrated service.” “Appropriate,” he says, “means to be legally compliant with all the regulations, so that the kids win, the school bus service wins and public transit wins.”
Under his leadership, Community Bus Services has successfully partnered with school districts and government agencies in Ohio’s Mahoning and Trumbull counties to provide public transit services, school bus transportation, and management of transportation and maintenance departments for school districts. Every day, CBS transports some 3,000 students, in 125 yellow school buses, throughout Mahoning, Trumbull, Ashtabula, Franklin, and Cuyahoga counties and also manages the Warren City Schools fleet of 33 buses that transport another 3,000 students.
He organized the Ohio Bus Association, a cadre of contractors from throughout the state, and successfully fought for funding for school transportation regardless of whether a district’s buses were school-owned or supplied by a contractor. He was awarded the first Distinguished Service Award by the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) for his work in changing the school bus funding formula to account for the capital costs borne by contractors operating in Ohio.
When the Federal Transit Administration approved a grant program for private-sector companies to bid on public transit work, CBS became involved with the federally funded public transit metropolitan planning organization process. That led to the company’s launch of the Niles-Trumbull Transit System to service the mobility and transportation needs of the transit-reliant, elderly and disabled citizens of Trumbull County. That, in turn, led to contracts from Cleveland RTA.
He convinced Trumbull County officials to outsource a 20-district transit program for special-needs students, and won the contract on a promise to cut ride time, sometimes as long as 2 hours and 45 minutes one way, to no more than 90 minutes – and kept the promise.
“We are on the cusp of a whole new day,” Thomas says, “integrating special needs transportation and paratransit service. Integrated transportation saves school districts money and provides appropriate service to the community. It’s a win-win situation and it makes nothing but sense.”