School bus operators need to have a clear, comprehensive transportation policy to avoid confusion and controversy. An incomplete or outdated policy and procedures manual invites disputes - especially with parents - that can quickly escalate into battles before the school board and headlines in the local newspaper. At Lakewood School District in Lakewood, Wash., our transportation department was involved in a bitter dispute with a parent over the location of a bus stop. The parent had requested that the transportation department move the existing bus stop closer to his home, which was approximately one-quarter mile down a dead-end road. The parent said he was concerned about safety hazards created by a nearby construction project. After a review of the bus stop and a discussion with the construction company regarding the students at the bus stop, the parent's request was denied. Subsequently, the parent brought this dispute to the school board, accusing the district of violating various state laws pertaining to school transportation. Although the media coverage was intense, the school board did not make any decision when confronted by the parent. Instead, the board directed the superintendent to review the matter. While the issue was under review, the media coverage decreased significantly. To settle the dispute, the superintendent requested state pupil transportation officials to conduct a review of our department. The completed review produced a number of recommendations, one of which was to update the transportation policy. Although I didn't think so at the time, this was the most important and beneficial recommendation submitted by the review team. Unclear policy blamed
In retrospect, the problem with the parent started, and became worse, because the transportation department did not have a clear policy. In following existing school board policy, we believed our decisions were proper and consistent. However, it was how the decisions were made that were inconsistent. In this case, there was no appeal procedure, leaving it up to the parent to determine what to do after we turned down his request to move the bus stop. Now, our new policy directs the decision-making process. For example, all requests for transportation changes must be submitted in writing on a single-page form. Previously, requests were taken over the telephone, and responses were usually returned in the same manner. In addition, the parent must clearly state the reason - the what, when and why - for the proposed change. In some cases, parents have chosen not to submit the form because of this section. Although parents are reluctant to admit it, many of their proposed changes are prompted by inconvenience rather than acceptable reasons, such as traffic safety hazards. After we receive a completed form, our policy and procedures manual guides us on how to handle the request. In addition, the form states the time line for response and, if necessary, appeal. With these deadlines in mind, we assess the site, talk to the bus driver and review compliance with transportation policy. When we respond to the parent, it is always in writing. (This alone has practically eliminated the frustration of arguing the merits of a request over the phone with the parent.) If a parent disagrees with our decision, he may file a written appeal with the district's Transportation Advisory Committee. If the parent is not satisfied with the committee's verdict, he or she must submit a written appeal to the school board and present it in person during a scheduled meeting. Since the transportation department policy was revised on Aug. 21, 1996, we have not received any appeals of our decisions. How to update policy
The first step in developing or updating your policy is to talk to the person responsible for policy development. Learn what's needed to adopt or modify a policy. Many school districts form an advisory committee, which might include a transportation representative, two or three parents, a principal and a public safety liaison. Other persons could serve in an advisory capacity. Our committee was selected by the superintendent to avoid the appearance that it was hand-picked by the transportation department. Once a committee has completed a recommended policy, the final draft should be reviewed by the school district's lawyers. The approved draft can then be submitted to the community for discussion at a school board meeting. At minimum, the transportation policy should include the following topics:
4 building blocks to good decisions
There are four components to the decision process that must be addressed in order to resolve simple problems before they escalate into full-scale controversies. 1. Authority: Do you have the authority to make all transportation decisions? How is that authority established? Is it only because you have a particular title?
Your authority should be established by policy to guide you in the decision-making process. Without it, your position in a dispute is compromised and can lead to your being passed over by the person lodging the complaint. When this happens, problems and requests that should be dealt with at your level go directly to your director or superintendent, which can erode their confidence in you.
2. Purpose: Why is one particular decision different from another? You should know what has priority in your school district and what does not. Without priorities, you and your system will soon be perceived as "aimless."
3. Consistency: Without a comprehensive policy, how can your decisions remain consistent? Inconsistent decisions regarding transportation are not only improper and unfair, but they also infuriate parents. It is nearly impossible to track every decision made by you and your staff. By following established guidelines, you ensure consistency. 4. Appeals: How does a parent appeal a decision? Without an appeal procedure, parents are forced to determine their own course of action. This can be a great source of trouble if it takes the form of a public protest or a large, angry crowd at a school board meeting. In the absence of a procedure, you lose control of the situation and exacerbate the problem. Where to find help
There are many sources of help for school transportation policy development. Two good sources are your state school board association and the 1995 National Standards for School Transportation handbook, which is available from the Missouri Safety Center, Central Missouri State University, Humphreys Suite 201, Warrensburg, MO 64093. The phone number is 816/543-4830. Each copy is $15. Fred Owyen is director of support services at Lakewood (Wash.) School District.