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September 01, 2003  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

The Many Values of School Transportation Websites

School transportation Websites can save time and money, free up hands for other duties, promote safety awareness and inform the public. For these and other utilitarian reasons, school bus operations need Websites now more than ever.

by Joey Campbell, Senior Editor


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More than a small share of school transportation providers will tell you that having a Website is not just a good idea anymore — it’s a necessity. Sure, there are still operations that lack the funding, technology or, in areas where few people have home computers, any realistic demand for an online presence. But, in general, school transportation Websites can provide a viable response to common problems caused by budget crunches, staff shortages and parent concerns.

Perhaps more importantly, a Website gives an operation another voice, or platform, to help the people it serves. Linda Farbry, transportation director for Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools, sums it up best. “The entire Website gives us the opportunity to advocate for ourselves — to speak to people directly.”

A means of informing
Most people will say that the primary purpose of a school transportation Website is to deliver helpful information. Of course, this information must be customized appropriately for the people who need it. “The info that is most helpful is the links to sites that my department uses on a daily basis,” says Jeff Vrabel, transportation coordinator for Columbiana County Educational Service Center in Lisbon, Ohio. “By listing this information, parents and others can better understand our operation and how and why things are done the way they are.” But what are the best ways to use a Website to disseminate information?

According to Beverly DeMott, transportation director for the School District of Hillsborough County in Thonotosassa, Fla., you have to look at the needs of your site’s visitors to decide what information is most valuable. “Based on drivers’ suggestions, we have added a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page about payroll and what to expect when drivers move from probationary to permanent employment,” she says. And parents, for example, need answers to myriad questions, so an FAQ section on common parent concerns is also vital, she adds.

Transportation Websites commonly feature route maps, calendars, contact information, safety tips and facts, maintenance records, hyperlinks to other important sites, childcare information, special-needs details, field and activity trip listings, regulatory updates and statistical data.

If an operation expects a user to ever return to its Website, then the information it hosts must be updated at least semi-regularly. “Information on our site must be kept timely and updated,” says Karen Williams, director of transportation for the St. Lucie County School Board in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “This comes from having a good communication flow among routers, dispatchers and the MIS department.” Essentially, communication transfer between the site administrator and the transportation staff must be constant. Updates on the weather, school cancellations, bus delays and route changes, for instance, could be confusing or potentially dangerous to someone if not kept fresh.

A hands-on resource
One of the advantages of the Internet is that it is interactive. People pick and choose how they navigate sites and what they read, so there’s plenty of room for variety. “It’s important to have sections of the Website address the transportation information needs of various stakeholders — parents, students, transportation staff and school board members,” says DeMott.

Moreover, a user-friendly format is necessary to allow visitors easy access to information. Says Patricia Crosbie, webmaster for Colorado Springs (Colo.) School District 11, “The purpose of the transportation Website is to present valuable information to our customers in a way that is easy to understand, easy to navigate and easy to access.” This is accomplished through various methods, including having a home page launching point, using simple language, having a search mechanism and organizing data with Website menus.

Giving your users the right navigational options and tools vastly improves your Website. To improve ease of use, offer the features of your site in a format and language that people want, or need, to see them in. Williams says her department is working on a Spanish and Creole version of its Website. “We have also added a kid’s page to promote school bus and stop safety in a format they can understand,” she says.

A transportation Website should not only inform but also open the lines of communication between your operation and concerned parties. It’s helpful to make staff contact information available so that worried parents or students can efficiently contact the right people in a pinch. Accessible numbers or e-mails of route coordinators and dispatchers for each area can save you from a lot of headaches and time-consuming phone conversations. Farbry says that at Fairfax County, which transports more than 120,000 students, the Website is set up so that parents can contact the correct supervisors, managers or other transportation personnel by simply “finding their child’s school on a comprehensive list and then clicking on the link.” In any case, access to a complete staff directory is a distinct advantage to a Website.

A job simplifier
A school transportation Website can make life easier on your operation by limiting the multiple duties of the staff. Constantly accessible information and answers to common questions reduce phone call volume greatly, freeing up hands for other tasks. “Parents really appreciate not having to use the phone and they like the 24-hour capability to retrieve information,” says Dannie Reed, executive director of planning and transportation for Dekalb County Schools in Tucker, Ga. “I can’t begin to tell you how many phone calls we do not get because of the information on our site.”

Having people access information online paves the way for the use of e-mail, which further cuts down on phone calls and has an additional benefit — improving the quality of information delivered. “E-mail replies can be generated when time permits in the day, rather than when an employee must stop doing something to take a phone call,” says Tim Parker, assistant transportation director for Fairfax County Public Schools. “This also allows staff members the opportunity to get accurate information for their replies instead of feeling ‘on the spot’ or ‘inadequate to respond’ to initial phone calls.

Another inherent advantage to a Website is its capacity to streamline paperwork and important documentation. For example, student discipline handbooks can be placed online and then consulted without the need of a hard copy, since kids tend to lose them. “This cuts down on a lot of needless complaints and smokescreen covers that kids give to their parents about their misbehavior on the bus,” says DeMott. Field and activity trip permission slips, employee handbooks and driver-training materials can also be placed online and distributed electronically.

Tony Briscoe, director of transportation for Ventura (Calif.) Unified School District, says his district started placing school bus registration information on the Website this year. However, students still had to register in person. But, says Briscoe, “As soon as our technology department has the time, I am going to add full online registration.” More and more districts are doing this, and some also allow parents to put in requests to stop transporting their children or change their bus stop to another area.

A PR tool
A Website can serve as an excellent public relations outlet for an operation. It reaches a large group of people at only a small portion of what it costs to use other, more popular media. On top of that, site appearance can positively affect the way people view an operation. “The site itself presents a professional image, and as a result, I sincerely believe our operation is perceived that way,” says Reed.

If you plan on putting together an aesthetically pleasing Website, you might also consider lauding the various accomplishments of your department. “Our site is administered by our public relations people, and we call on them for photos and to get information published both on the site and in our newsletter,” says Cheryl Fitzgibbons, transportation director for Southern Westchester BOCES in North White Plains, N.Y. “Most recently we shared our awards day with special recognition for one of our drivers and her heroic act.” Giving credit where credit is due — especially on the Internet where the whole world can see it — can help improve employee morale and reassure potentially concerned customers.

The PR benefits of a Website also extend to helping with recruitment of new employees. Kevin Oleson, operations manager for Renton (Wash.) School District, says his district has run internal banners for recruiting bus drivers. “If people are interested, the ad tells them about our fleet and what the job requirements are and the pay scale.”

School transportation Websites also allow for cross promotion. Many directors say they run announcements and promos for activities going on in other school district departments and vice versa. A flyer promoting an open house, for example, could have the Website address on it, and the Website could also promote the open house. To that end, Oleson says Renton School District puts the Website address on postcards, letterheads and other department information.

A cost saver
At first glance, it may seem that building and maintaining a Website might require a considerable financial investment both in technology and in labor. But the truth is actually the opposite. “To my knowledge I haven’t spent a dime for equipment to make our site viable,” says Reed. “I have two employees [who work on it] but it is very little work for them and requires little time out of their day.”

DeMott agrees. “I think all school districts should weigh the cost of an effective Website against the cost of materials and time spent on phone calls. A good Website will cut down on these costs and pay for itself.” In many cases, it saves on postage and postal supply funds since so much information can be transferred and downloaded electronically. For the same reason, Websites cut down printing and paper costs as well.

“The cost of running the site is a lot less than what it would run to pay a receptionist or switchboard operator to take the calls that it eliminates and someone else to research and get back with the answers,” says Williams of St. Lucie County Schools, citing the labor costs that a Website can reduce.

The greatest cost is acquiring the necessary hardware and software, but only if your operation doesn’t already have it. Be sure to ask other school departments if they have equipment that can be shared. Many school districts use the same staff, supplies and equipment to run separate Websites for multiple departments.

The question, of course, arises about whether a school transportation provider can actually make money by selling advertising space or offering products such as T-shirts and paraphernalia online. Feelings are mixed, but most operators are against the idea and some school districts prohibit such actions. Says Linda Porcello, transportation consultant in Ashtabula, Ohio, “It would complicate things and decrease the effectiveness of the site. People view for information and wouldn’t be interested in advertising; it wouldn’t be advantageous for the advertiser either.” Still, some site administrators are leaving the door open.

A gatherer of feedback
Gauging the public’s perception of your operation is always a major challenge. Websites can glean valuable information from the people you serve through sections specifically geared for user comments and suggestions. More directly, some operations actually place poll questions or surveys on their site. It’s also helpful to have a hit counter on your homepage to see how often people are viewing your information.

Renton School District uses a simple formula to calculate whether or not the transportation department is doing a good job. “We base feedback on the number of stop request forms received versus the number of e-mails from people complimenting the site or applying for employment,” says Oleson. “It makes it easier for administration because they can use the site as a general reference related to transportation.”

Another common feedback tool is a “contact us” link that allows users to send direct e-mails to the site administrator or other staff members. Crosbie of Colorado Springs Schools says her district’s site has several tools that do this. “We have a new program called D-11 Answers, which allows customers to click a button on our homepage and ask a question directly to the most qualified person to answer,” she says.

Feedback can come within the department, too. DeMott says at Hilsborough County, through a driver resource section, drivers are turning in about 15 suggestions per month on how to improve employment conditions.

 


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