School transportation is a significant part of every district’s services, but also has the potential to become a major source of trouble when we lose focus on the details, including regulations and requirements. That can result in the bus(es) drifting out of their lanes and heading for a significant crash! And now, to make it more difficult, it seems that lawmakers and state agencies are making the lanes narrower and paying more attention to our mistakes than our successes. Should we be worried? And if so, about what?
To set the stage for answering these questions, ask yourself the following:
• Do you have an experienced transportation administrator who is now spending more time driving a bus to cover missing drivers than overseeing the transportation operation?
• Do you have a new transportation administrator who is a great manager, but who has no background in school transportation?
• Are you new as a superintendent in a district, and do not yet have a good sense of how efficiently and/or effectively the transportation department is operating, and if it is following all the rules (including the new ones)?
• Has transportation been a quiet department in your district, and do you subscribe to the theory that if it’s not been a problem, don’t poke the bear?
What could possibly go wrong? We can look at a few of the more common issues that arise.
Shortage of drivers: On the face of it, we could easily say this is an HR problem, and recruiting has fallen behind the needs of the district. Driver recruitment should be an ongoing process. However, when the transportation director is busy driving and managing day-to-day operations, he/she has little time to work with HR to develop effective a recruiting campaign. It is easy to get behind the curve and end up short-staffed. To complicate matters, requirements for driver qualifications and training are formidable. There are many hours of training and classes, background checks, drug and alcohol checks, driving record checks, medical qualifications, commercial driver licensing and extensive state and federal oversight. Even when you find the right driver candidates, you have to make certain they satisfy all the qualifications and allow them to drive a bus only after you have satisfied the state regulators that your “ready and willing” candidates have met all the qualifications. Just putting someone behind the wheel because you need a driver, without having met state requirements, is not a solution.
Buses and vans: Sounds simple . . . run a vehicle until it wears out, then buy a new one to replace it. Whether it is a bus or a van, the same practice should work just fine. After all, that has worked just fine for our personal vehicles for decades.
Focusing on just buses for a moment, how do we really know when a bus is at the end of its serviceable life? There comes a point where it is more costly to repair a vehicle than to replace it. Did you also know the state patrol inspects school buses twice every year, and ultimately decides if you are allowed to use it or not? They may place a perfectly sound bus out-of-service for an inspection failure, or they may tell you that they will no longer inspect or pass a bus due to age and condition. To complicate this further, to purchase a new bus you are required to comply with state bidding procedures, purchase only vehicles that meet state and federal requirements, and place an order with a dealer that may not be filled for 18-24 months.
With vans, it should be easier, but many will tell you it is equally as complicated. There are state and federal regulations that limit options for passenger occupancy in vehicles other than school buses. If you go to the car dealer and ask for a passenger vehicle (van) for pupil transportation, they will jump at the opportunity and sell you anything with seats in it. For the most part, dealers are ignorant of the federal and state regulations on vehicle size and seating. Sometimes we have other staff in the district that mean well . . . and go out and purchase a vehicle only to find out afterwards that the vehicle is not legal for pupil transportation.
Compliance regulations: In recent years the state (both legislators and state agencies) has adopted a firmer stance with regard to compliance with regulations. This also comes at a time when new regulations are being enacted and the lanes we drive in, so to speak, are getting narrower. Some of the regulations have been in place for decades and were enacted with pupil safety as a goal. Other regulations have been adopted to correct perceived slights and inequalities in the actual services being provided. The fact of the matter is that most regulations require more resources, at a time when the availability of drivers and buses is lower than ever.
What is an administrator to do?
District administrators and school boards have many responsibilities and obligations. Having an in-depth knowledge of everything within their scope of oversight is not practical. We rely on other staff in the chain of command to keep the district off thin ice and fully compliant in all areas of school district operations. That said, when you are trying to do more with less, it is easy to overlook something.
The starting point to moving forward is an accurate assessment of what you currently have in place. You can do this yourself, hoping that you know all the regulations and best practices, or you can engage an objective, experienced transportation professional. Ennis Britton Consulting Group has a tool to provide you with this assistance. Transportation Consultant Pete Japikse has developed a ‘transportation health check” based on over 40 years of experience and knowledge of rules, regulations and best practices in transportation. This health check looks at all aspects of your transportation operation. The outcome of this transportation health check is a report identifying the areas where the District is doing well, areas where attention should be focused, and areas where transportation operations may be “getting by” but improvements may be needed. This management tool will provide you with concrete and specific input, enabling you to develop a roadmap to success, and to stay inside of the lanes as you move forward.