Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
While working as a farmer in Iowa more than 20 years ago, Max Christensen was approached by a man, Warren, who asked if Christensen could help him pull his truck out of a hole. Christensen obliged.
Warren, a school district transportation director, recommended Christensen for the position before he resigned. Christensen interviewed and was hired.
He then worked at other operations before becoming executive officer of school transportation for the Iowa Department of Education.
As he steps into the role of president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), Christensen says he has several goals, including maintaining NASDPTS’ alliance with other industry associations.
“I’d like to try to bring the NASDPTS/National Association for Pupil Transportation [NAPT] conferences to Omaha, Neb.,” he adds. “It’s truly a world-class city.”
Christensen also says NASDPTS will work on finding a new chair for the National Congress on School Transportation. (Chair Pete Japikse has retired.)
Christensen discusses other goals, industry challenges and the conference in Memphis with SBF Managing Editor Kelly Roher.
What are your goals for your term as president of NASDPTS?
MAX CHRISTENSEN: There is so much happening in the school transportation industry, and technology is changing so fast that it’s very hard to keep up. My goal is to keep NASDPTS focused on these changes and to maintain our alliances with the other associations. We’ve really been building those relationships, and I think it has paid off in many ways, including the creation of the American School Bus Council six years ago. We can accomplish so much more working together than by working separately. We have a longstanding tradition of working with NAPT in putting together two of the finest conferences of any industry. And over the past few years, we’ve been invited to join with NSTA [National School Transportation Association] at their Capitol Hill fly-in in Washington, D.C., each spring.
I’d also like to see NASDPTS build closer ties to our allies at the federal level: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Transportation Safety Board, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the U.S. Department of Education and others.
Are there any issues impacting the industry at a national level that you plan to work on during your term?
I think we do a good job of addressing new issues that come up and determining the impact they have on our industry. However, there are a number of older issues that we need to look at to be sure that we are as up-to-date as possible. Some of those would include school bus driver training, the use of vans as school buses, advertising on buses and seat belts in school buses.
NASDPTS has a number of position papers on these and other topics that are no longer “hot button” issues, but are still quite important. Some of our position papers go back over a decade. I’d like to see us revise and/or update all of our position papers so those items carry current relevance.What are some top challenges that many state pupil transportation directors are facing right now?
Also, due to the poor economy, many state directors face travel restrictions for attending conferences where we can become better educated and develop a network for helping us to solve the many problems we face. The cost of attending one or two conferences per year is very small when compared to the knowledge, help and inspiration it can give to better perform our jobs on a daily basis.
How about any challenges that you’re facing in your state?
We always have school bus driver shortages, and with Iowa’s unemployment rate being about 3% lower than the national average, we don’t have a great number of qualified people to draw from to drive our buses.
Another item: Here in Iowa, we’re ground zero of the biofuels program, yet every time we see a spike in petroleum fuels, the biofuels go right along with it. Since we’re making that stuff in our state, I don’t understand why that price can’t be a little more stable.
And finally, as school was getting underway this fall, our office was dealing with an investigative report from a statewide newspaper about our school bus inspection process that revealed that we have some “holes” in our process, mainly in the area of doing callbacks to check on repairs. We have two inspectors — it’s kind of difficult to do callbacks when each inspector is checking 7,500 vehicles each year. The inspectors and I have been pushing for additional inspection help for the past six-plus years, but it took an investigative report before we were heard.
Within the last year, legislative changes have been made in your state related to illegal bus passing due to the passage of Kadyn’s Law. Are there any other changes at the legislative level in the works that you expect to impact pupil transportation in Iowa?
There may be a real push in our Legislature next year to mandate the inspection of all vehicles that transport students — this would include all multi-purpose vehicles that currently have no inspection requirement. This was another item found in the investigative report and another example of something my office has been pushing to implement for the past five to six years without success until it hit front-page news. I think we’ll also see an increase in our inspection fee in order to fund at least one more bus inspector.
And I’d just like to mention that the Kadyn’s Law legislation has brought an awareness of school bus safety to our state that I honestly never thought possible. The true test will be to see if all this attention translates into more safety for our children as they get on and off of our school buses.
Are there any details about the conference in Memphis that you’d like to share?
I think we’re going to have one of the best conferences we’ve ever had! [Veteran industry consultant] Dick Fischer will be doing a session about school transportation in other countries — I think this will really open some eyes as to just how well we do it here in the United States, and a researcher from Sweden will discuss how to improve fire safety on school buses and motorcoaches.
We’ll also have sessions on future school bus design, future routing ideas and how we can make our school buses more noticeable to the motoring public by simply changing a few long-held beliefs in how we mark our buses.
Anything else you’d like to mention in terms of your presidency of NASDPTS?
It’s a great honor to serve in this position, and I truly appreciate the faith that my peers have in me by placing me here. The school transportation industry and NASDPTS have some of the most dedicated, helpful and selfless individuals of any industry out there. Being the president-elect of NASDPTS over the past two years has only helped to solidify my awareness of these industry traits and to build my own desire to give as much to this industry — to this family — as I possibly can.
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