Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
When Jeff Walker started in his new position as director of transportation at Litchfield Elementary School District #79 in Phoenix in June 2010, he brought with him a plan to make the department more efficient and to instill a sense of camaraderie and professionalism in its staff.
His plan appears to be working. The district’s transportation department has cut costs, reduced the number of student disciplinary incidents on its buses and improved its safety record. According to Walker, who started as a bus driver in college and has now worked as a director for three districts, these improvements are related to the reorganization of the department and an overall increase in employee morale.
Staff restructuring eases communication
The first thing Walker set out to do was reorganize the department so that communication between drivers and staff would become easier and more efficient. Walker decided early on to make staff supervision an integral part of his job, and to create a student transporter liaison position, “which deals with two key aspects of our department: special needs and student discipline,” he says.
When Walker began working at the department, it had “two routing specialists and they were working together on different things,” Walker says. “We split them up so one was a regular-education routing and field trips specialist and the other one was focusing on special needs.”
This change, Walker explains, makes it easier for drivers to get the information they need or relay questions or concerns to the correct person.
Drivers on special-needs routes direct their concerns to Patty Reid, the department’s special-needs routing specialist. Drivers on regular-education routes contact Tommy Sims, the regular routing specialist and field trip coordinator. Student discipline concerns are directed to Tami Bellinger, the student transporter liaison.
In addition, the department brought in a new mechanic’s assistant and promoted the previous mechanic’s assistant to the position of fleet supervisor.
“The only staffing change that we made that was not office related is that people who want to become a driver — unless they come to us certified from another district — start off as aides on the buses,” Walker explains.
This change has made the department’s hiring process much easier, according to Walker.
“It’s working out very, very well for us because at the same time that they are learning how to drive the bus they’re also riding along, they’re seeing what it’s like to work with the kids if they’ve never driven before and they’re seeing what our district is like,” he says. “Overall, that’s been an absolute win-win for us.”
Last year, the department proposed another change: to switch the “bus driver” title to “student transporter.”
“I don’t like the bus driver stereotype of being ‘just’ a bus driver. Like I tell my staff, you are not just a bus driver, because a bus driver simply drives the bus,” Walker explains. “You are required to manage your students while safely operating your vehicle; you are a psychologist, a teacher, a social worker, a babysitter and more.”
Walker says his department’s student transporters are proud of their new title, which is especially poignant, considering the sharp drop in student discipline reports since Walker started implementing changes.
“We provided them with a number of different training sessions on student management, and because of that, our number of student discipline reports dropped from 1,400 in the 2009-10 school year to 198 this last school year,” Walker says.
The department has also seen an improvement in its safety record, with an average of only one accident per 196,000 miles.
Changes increase staff morale
Walker has striven to motivate his staff with a number of new measures, such as quarterly meetings and events put on by the department’s new social committee.
Thanks to the committee, the department now holds monthly potlucks, birthday celebrations and an end-ofthe-year festival in which “we recognized all of our drivers and our staff for a number of different things. In total, we ended up passing out 157 awards that night, ranging from certificates to trophies and plaques,” Walker says.
Drivers and staff are happy to chip in $10 at the start of the year to get things going. The activities are then subsidized by the profits from candy and bake sales.
“I looked forward to the changes [in the department] and am welcoming them,” Susan Garcia, a student transporter, says. “Just coming to work in our new environment makes you feel better. I am very pleased … with the social committee, and all of our staff working as a team.”
Bus aide Joanne Fryer adds, “I truly enjoy the direction that this department is going in.”
Walker says the new quarterly meetings, which occur in three sessions since the department does not yet have a big enough space to hold them, have been a great addition.
“It’s not a complaining session by any means. [We provide] updates as to what’s going on around here, what changes are coming up now and what’s going on in the calendar,” Walker says. “It’s my chance at least once a quarter to get my whole staff together … to keep them informed. I’ve had very good feedback from the staff; they appreciate knowing what is going on around here.”
Get creative about cutting costs
Walker notes that he and his staff got creative when it came to cutting costs. When he first started his new job, Walker noticed that drivers were responsible for washing their own buses, which, he says, “I had issues with from a safety standpoint.”
The department saved approximately $10,000 in one year by hiring a mobile bus washing service to perform the task instead, Walker says. Rather than pay drivers overtime to clean their buses, the district has the company wash its buses once a month in the evening, when all the buses are on the lot.
Walker and his staff were also able to perform a much-needed parking lot renovation for a mere $197.
According to Walker, a nearby freeway was under construction, and the crew needed a place to dispose of extra temporary asphalt. “We said, heck yeah, bring it on,” Walker says.
After the crew laid the asphalt on what was originally a dirt lot, Walker and Tommy Sims, the regular routing specialist and field trip coordinator, painted lines in the lot.
“When I was in college, one of my summer jobs was striping parking lots,” Walker continues. “So over a long weekend, Tommy and I came in and we striped the entire parking lot ourselves. We improved our flow and our efficiency by turning it into a one-way lot.”
In addition, the staff worked together to introduce routing software to the department. “I was shocked when I got here and I found out … we’ve got 14 schools and 10,500 students and we were still doing the routing by hand,” Walker says. “So we’ve implemented [Tyler Technologies’] Versatrans for our routing and planning software this year, and that’s working wonders for us.”
The department has also introduced three new buses with wheelchair lifts to make special-needs transportation more cost-efficient for the district.
New facility and new expectations
Now, Walker and his department staff are eagerly looking forward to the construction of a new transportation facility. Construction is projected to begin in 2012.
“We are a growing district, and we continue to grow despite the economy,” Walker says. “The facility that we have now is not adequate for us. We are working with the school district and the director of construction to design a new facility that will include more office space, a training facility and a more efficient shop.”
Since starting at Litchfield Elementary, Walker says he has challenged his staff to be their best, and “everybody here either rose to my expectations or rose above my expectations. We’ve gotten phone calls and compliments from parents and administrators about the professionalism that they are seeing in our staff,” Walker says.
Of the coming school year, Walker adds, “I think this year is going to be an outstanding year for the department. We’ve got a terrific staff here now, and I think the absolute world of them.”
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