Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious condition that affects an individual or a group of individuals who have been involved in or witnessed a traumatic situation. Post-opening stress disorder (POSD) is a term that I invented in an effort to explain some of the feelings that the transportation staff at my school district, and transportation directors from districts throughout the country, have experienced during the start of a new school year.
It is important to note that while I was admittedly hoping to generate a few laughs from my newly coined POSD condition and diagnosis, I have the utmost compassion for people suffering from PTSD and do not intend to make light of their situation.
POSD is a condition that seems to worsen each year for pupil transportation directors and their staff. In most cases, it begins around the middle of August and hits a crescendo around the first full week of school. POSD manifests itself as nervousness, irritability, insomnia and a feeling of being alone and torn between drivers, central office administration, principals, students, parents, media sources and local residents.
Each of these groups has certain needs or specific interests in your operation and can leave you feeling like a wishbone being pulled apart. Unfortunately, you and your department can never make any of these parties truly happy because each group has an opinion, especially with regard to how problematic situations should be resolved. All you can do is use your experience as your guide and continue to place the needs of children first. By doing this you can, hopefully, stay one step ahead of these special-interest groups.
Based on information I have received from colleagues, the opening of the 2007-08 school year was pretty successful, from a transportation standpoint. On the first day of school at my district, children were picked up and dropped off safely and nobody was hurt or lost — as far as I am concerned, that makes for a good first day.
However, my office team said they felt that things were “kind of crazy.” No matter how you slice it, the first few weeks of school are tough on transportation staff members, especially the office staff. They field hundreds of phone calls, process volumes of information, assist parents with last-minute child transportation requests, prepare bus information lists and schedules for building administrators and juggle the drivers’ last-minute needs.
During this time, some of the comments, phone calls and bad attitudes that we have to deal with directly contribute to POSD. One transportation director I spoke with said callers and parents get nastier every year. Another director told me that in past years, phone calls would start friendly and end up nasty when the caller realized his or her needs could not be accommodated. Nowadays, the majority of calls begin with the caller yelling and swearing at us.
Specific comments and attitudes contributing to POSD seem to occur in many of the conversations that take place between transportation staff and callers.
Working with building administrators
We are all on the same team, right? We should be, but there are building administrators out there who cannot understand that the world does not revolve around their building and their schedule.
Most transportation departments serve all of the children living in a geographical area, not just the children who attend a certain school. A school building may have 500 to 1,000 students in it, whereas a transportation department may be responsible for the needs of 5,000 children. We do our best to balance the needs of children and building administrators.
Building administrators also often do not grasp how much it costs to run a school bus operation. Each time a bus’ wheels turn, the district or operation is spending money. Putting a transportation program together is like building a jigsaw puzzle, and there are occasions when a building administrator’s lack of flexibility with regard to as little as 15 minutes can result in unimplemented route changes that would have been cost-effective.
Your only hope for getting some level of buy-in from your fellow administrators on many of the conflict-inducing issues is to share bottom line cost information with them. Perhaps when you speak this language, they will understand that their request is not simply a matter of sending “one of those buses and drivers you have just sitting around down there” out on the road to cater to their needs.
Time debates can add to your POSD level. If you arrived at the bank and your watch said 3:58 p.m. and the door was locked because they close at 4:00 p.m. and their clock read 4:01 p.m., would you bang on the door and scream? Absolutely not — the police would probably be called.
This is not the case at some pupil transportation operations. Parents and administrators think nothing of arguing with the bus dispatcher based on the time indicated on their clocks, watches or car radios. Do yourself and your operation a favor and adopt a district or fleet time standard. Visit www.time.gov and sync all of your bus and school building clocks to the time on this Website, and have your drivers and dispatchers set their watches to this time.
Furthermore, advertise to parents that the time found on the site will be the official time on your bus fleet’s clocks, and in schools. This should clear up any confusion and reduce your POSD.
The taxpayer approach
The “I am a taxpayer” card gets played about two to three minutes into a conversation with an upset parent. Being a taxpayer earns us no special privileges. Taxes are supposed to provide fair and equitable government services to residents of a community, county, state or country. Paying taxes does not allow us to have a fire truck parked on our street to serve us in an emergency. We cannot demand that snowplows clear our street because we have to get to work and we cannot demand that a school bus stop be built in front of our house.
Being subjected to callers’ “taxpayer mindset” and being encouraged by school boards and administrators to cater to it has contributed to POSD. On a particular street, for instance, you may have 25 taxpaying parents who all want different things for their children and, at the same time, you may have to interact with 10 anti-tax residents who think your buses are making too many stops.
Older students’ parents can also cause POSD when they complain because they cannot see their child at the bus stop and request that it be moved to a spot where it is visible from their house. One wonders how some parents can make such a request when they can often find their child skateboarding, riding bikes or hanging out at the local plaza (with no adult supervision) by driving through the neighborhood after school.
Misunderstanding department priorities
When administrators or parents are unhappy because they feel that their needs are not being addressed, the matter often makes it to the district office.
If you are a school administrator and you want to insult your transportation director or the department’s staff, say, “I am only looking out for the best interest of kids.”
Transportation directors and their staff members do not have the luxury of working with teachers and parent volunteers in school buildings. Buses have 30 to 60 children on them, which can be three times the number of students in an average-sized classroom, and our drivers have to cater to their needs while interacting with other motorists.
Furthermore, transportation directors do not have endless resources. There are only so many drivers and so many buses available. Many times, when transportation departments mix the budgetary, staffing and logistics side of an issue into an argument, school administrators may believe that we are not putting kids first. That is offensive and augments POSD. We are all in this business for the children; however, motor vehicles and the agencies that regulate them are sometimes subject to different procedures and standards than school buildings.
Taking heat for saying “no”
There are only so many nice ways to say “no” to an individual, and callers rarely accept “no” from a transportation department manager. These conversations generally end with comments like, “Who is your supervisor?” or, “We will take this to the school board.”
Parents also often call transportation offices during the busiest times of the day, when all of the buses are on the road and phones are lit up like a holiday tree. They may perceive being put on hold for extended periods of time or the dispatcher’s multitasking as poor customer service, but it comes down to the time that they call.
Moreover, many times, callers ask us to cast aside laws, regulations or district policies to get what they want or insist that we treated them rudely because we didn’t say “yes.”
Some school administrators, on the other hand, give in to the demands of the loudest complainer and will not give any thought to the impact it will have on the other 45 children on the bus. When a route is altered for one individual, the times or pick-up locations for 45 other children can be affected. When a bus is sent back for one student who missed it while all of the other students were on time, the chances of the bus being involved in a collision due to extra turns, backtracking or confusing traffic is a real possibility. At the very least, 45 children will be late to school because of one student. Taking a beating for this contributes to POSD.
Office child care
Finally, at the busiest time of the day for a transportation department, some school districts still expect us to provide child care for children whose parents are not home.
If your district expects your transportation department to care for children whose parents are not home, your schools are not doing their job. Transportation departments cannot and should not be expected to provide day care. Bus garages are not designed to accommodate students and the environment is not appropriate for children, especially young children. They should always be in an environment that is familiar to them, and that is either their home or school.
It does not matter what you call it — POSD or the “September blues” (or yellows) — there is a post-school opening, high-stress period at many districts’ transportation departments.
Transportation departments need to address the issues that get them down during that time of the year, perhaps sharing them with administrators or board members and setting the stage for an important dialogue about staffing, policies, procedures or, at the very least, how complaints are handled.
Finally, whatever you decide to call it, make every attempt to get some rest as the start of the school year nears so that you can greet each day refreshed. And do some activities after work involving your favorite hobbies or spend some quality time with your family. Remember, the work will be there for you in the morning.
Michael Dallessandro is transportation supervisor at Lake Shore Central School District in Angola, N.Y., and a frequent contributor to SCHOOL BUS FLEET.