School bus operations across the nation have been hit hard by budget cuts in recent years. While service reductions have been inevitable in many cases, pupil transporters are finding ways to become more efficient, stay relevant and keep yellow buses shuttling students safely.
This was made clear in a recent roundtable discussion with school transportation directors at the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) Summit in Portland, Ore., in November. SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon sat down with four prominent directors:
• Chris Ellison, director of transportation, Greater Albany (Ore.) Public Schools, and president of the Oregon Pupil Transportation Association (OPTA)
• Michael Shields, director of transportation, Salem-Keizer Public Schools, Salem, Ore.
• Pete Meslin, director of transportation, Newport-Mesa Unified School District, Costa Mesa, Calif.
• Peter Lawrence, director of transportation, Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District
Read on for their thoughts on a variety of issues, from bell times to bullying to student achievement.
SBF: Tell me about what's happening at your operations.
We're also looking at full-day kindergarten, which most districts have. In my area in New York state, we have half-day kindergarten. We're looking at doing a study, and if it's approved this year, we'll probably start full-day kindergarten next year.
PETE MESLIN: You've probably been reading in the headlines that California has no money - not only no money, but negative money. In the current economic condition, some budgeted money is actually removed when the state releases its May budget revision. We've cut significant numbers of school teachers and support services. The challenge at this point is how to get ahead of that - how to be efficient enough that people realize that your service is still necessary and not a drain on the organization. We've been dealing with that as an ongoing challenge, and I'm not sure when we're going to come out of this economic trough.
The other visible change we've just completed is the installation of a CNG fueling station. We're converting our buses to CNG as we replace them, which has a significant impact on a variety of things - not just budget, but also the environment and the community. It's good, but it's a different way of doing business. It's complicated for our mechanics to learn new technology.
Have you gotten any kind of grants for the CNG buses?
MESLIN: Yes, we have. Our air quality management district supports us in that regard. They don't buy the bus for us, but they buy down a fair share of it. They insist that we buy an alternative fuel vehicle. We're no longer able to buy diesel buses - even clean diesel - in Southern California.
LAWRENCE: We just received a grant for $204,000 for two diesel-electric hybrid buses, which we should get in April or May. We'll be the first in Monroe County to have that technology.
MICHAEL SHIELDS: As for what's happening in Salem-Keizer, the district passed an unprecedented large bond issue for school construction and deferred maintenance. It's $242 million, in one of the worst downturn economic periods in history. It's just phenomenal. We owe that to our executive leadership - the superintendent going out and building bridges with the community.
We've had huge gains in student achievement. Graduation rates are up and test scores are up, but we're still not meeting the level of achievement that we need to for students. So this year, they added graduation as part of student achievement in the mission statement. The dropout rates that we're experiencing across the United States have been a problem.
Last spring I was asked, as Peter was, to re-evaluate the bell times. Over the past two years, we cut $50 million out of the district budget. We're being told that next year's cuts will be $40 million to $50 million for our district. So there are lots of tentative issues. We cut out of our [transportation] budget $900,000 last year and another $300,000 the first budget go-round. This summer, we reduced another million. And this is without a lot of change in our service level. So we've got to re-evaluate our service level to try to consolidate costs, which is going to mean some tough questions that we're going to have to present to principals and parents. What should our service level be? Do we come out of the neighborhoods? Do we do main street pickups?
As a department head, I've been asked to review all of our policies and procedures as they were, and rewrite them and update them. We've also been preparing for internal audits. This is all part of the ISO process - the quality assurance management standards. They're followed by an external audit, where they hire an auditor to come in and review how we're doing and whether we're on track. Then every five years, the state of Oregon does an audit of the transportation systems, so we'll be doing that as well.
CHRIS ELLISON: I'm in quite a bit smaller of a district than the three other gentlemen. We're about a third of the size of Salem-Keizer. We're looking at beginning a capital project to replace our transportation facility and build a brand new facility. We're in the designing stages right now. Our current transportation facility, which is about 40 years old now, is in a highly desired area on just a little less than three acres for 70 school buses. So our neighbors really want our land. The district has a five-acre parcel, and they're looking at purchasing another five to six acres adjacent to it to make this work.
So that's first and foremost with Albany. Then on the operations side, we're still trying to figure out what route we're going to go with the SCR [selective catalytic reduction] or the Advanced EGR [exhaust gas recirculation]. You read a lot about them, but now what are the real-world results?
What do you see as some of the key issues for school bus operations across the nation right now?
ELLISON: One is bullying. OPTA is putting on a workshop for drivers in February. We did this two years ago with train awareness. We did a full mock disaster drill and made a video of it. We presented it in front of about 800 school bus drivers from all around the state. And then we kind of sat back and reloaded and decided we're going to tackle bullying. We've been planning this for seven months. We do a video to kind of set up the scenario, and then we go with the live exercise. It's multi-agency: city police, state police, county sheriff and then ultimately a SWAT team coming in. The twist of this is it's a student that's been bullied to the point of, "What are you going to do?" That's a recurring theme with bullies. We're excited about this, and it's hitting right at the perfect time. Not that there is a perfect time - but with it in everyone's mind, it just reinforces that something's got to be done.
MESLIN: What I'm focusing on, especially as I see it happening nationally, is student achievement. We tend to think of ourselves as the people who safely deliver students to school, and then the educators take over and educate the kids. That's not at all the model that we're going to have to maintain if we're going to continue in this kind of an economy. If we're not educators, then we're not going to exist, because the cuts are going to be away from the classroom, if at all possible. And unless we're educators, we're going to be gone. Certainly in terms of regular-ed, and in many cases, in terms of special-ed - depending on how you have it set up.
The other focus is in serving students with special needs in a less restrictive setting. This means that if a student is capable of being served not at the curb, and has learned the skills and the abilities to move away from the curb (we have taught them those skills), then they're ready to go to a corner bus stop, or a stop a block away, etc. As we implement that, and we have implemented much of that in our district, students learn independence. It's great for the budget, and it's great for our people, who are actually educators, and it forces those partnerships that some of us have been talking about for years. And we take pride in that as part of the professional learning community, we're involved in decisions that help improve student achievement.
LAWRENCE: That's a great thing, as long as it doesn't jeopardize safety, because once these kids graduate, they're not riding yellow buses. You might be coded as special-ed and have a door-to-door stop, but once you age out, you're taking transit or paratransit.
MESLIN: We're actually teaching life skills, but not waiting until students are 19 years old to teach it. And it's exciting to see students progress. You see the success stories - kids saying, "Gee, now I'm finally on my own and independent." We had a part in that, as opposed to just the classroom educators.
LAWRENCE: To kind of piggyback with that, about the education of the student, one of the big things that we hit in our district is that transportation people have to make sure - and it ties into the bullying - that we're transporting students ready to learn. If they're scared senseless, where they're not wanting to ride the bus, they're not ready to learn.
One of the things that concerns me is that with these tight budget times, states are looking at extending walking distances. Some of it is necessary. In my state, New York, the walking distance for K through sixth grade is two miles, and three miles for seventh through twelfth grade. However, boards of education have made them smaller. In my district, K through sixth grade is a quarter-mile; seventh through twelfth grade is a half-mile. So could we extend it? Absolutely, in some cases, but in my mind you can't just extend it to the maximum across the board. We live in "Trail Town USA." There's not a lot of sidewalks, but should we be making stops every third house, within 300 feet? There's got to be a happy medium, but what I get afraid of is that boards are just going to say: "We need to save money, and now you're walking a mile."
MESLIN: So there's a big education piece there - you need to inform people.
LAWRENCE: There's an education piece, and also there's our safety record. Are we going to have kids getting injured because now they're walking?
SHIELDS: There's a focus - Pete and Peter hit it right on the head. We really have to find a link with the student achievement, and the bus drivers have to understand that. In our district, it's "Every Child, Every Day." The safe, efficient transportation is the how. The what is, "Did that kid graduate?" And tying in with Chris, the way they're going to feel that is to feel comfortable on the bus. Another key area is for us to find ways to make that connection. The use of technology - can the bus be a learning environment? Something Chris hasn't shared that he's working on is how to use the technology now - can you do a Wi-Fi so kids can go on the computer and use the learning environment with the iPads and the iPhone?
MESLIN: And we actually had Hall Davidson from the Discovery Channel come and talk to us about that [at NAPT].
SHIELDS: So how can we start incorporating that so that's your homework time? If kids are focused, there's going to be less misbehavior. The school bus could become a learning environment.
Look for the second half of this roundtable discussion in an upcoming issue.