Fourteen years after concluding his last presidency of NAPT, Don Carnahan has taken the reins of the association for another two-year term.
Carnahan, who is vice president of business development in pupil transportation for Zonar Systems, has had one of the more diverse careers in the industry.
During his previous term as NAPT president, 1997-99, he was a regional director for school bus contractor Laidlaw. Before that, he served as state director of pupil transportation in Washington. He also chaired the 11th National Congress on School Transportation in 1990.
SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon spoke with Carnahan about his new term as president, how the industry has changed since his last term, and current issues impacting the transportation of students.
SBF: What are some of your key goals as you start this term as president of NAPT?
DON CARNAHAN: The first thing I want to say is that NAPT as an organization has an excellent staff and an excellent executive director. It’s not like there’s anything that’s broken that needs to be fixed. So I think in a nutshell, I would say that my first goal is to try to do everything I can as president to make it as efficient and effective as possible for the NAPT staff to do their jobs.
There is a strategic plan in place, and one of my major goals is to try to figure out ways to more efficiently and effectively get the board interaction to make it easier to accomplish those goals and objectives.
That being said, one of the things that I really want to try to do is to get all of the organizations in the industry to work a little more cooperatively together on getting the industry messages out there so that it will have some impact on the public. We do a pretty good job of preaching to the choir and talking to ourselves about what we do, but I’m hoping that we can figure out some way to do a better job of communicating that to the public at large and to the rest of the education community. I think it’s important that we figure out a way to do that, because it certainly doesn’t have the desired impact if we just talk to each other — especially if we’re just complaining about how things are.
You served as NAPT president before. What are some ways that the industry has changed since then, and what remains the same?
There’s always been the need and desire for more resources, because it’s a state-funded activity. And different states at different times go through different gyrations in terms of their ability to fund their state obligation. So I think the whole idea of the funding mechanisms that the school systems rely on for resources is pretty much the same. It may be a little worse now, just because money is tight everywhere.
Back when I was president the first time, ‘97-99, we were always dealing with fuel prices. They’d go up and up and up, and about the time somebody figured out a way to deal with it, maybe adjusting the funding level, then they’d go back down. So nobody did anything. It was kind of a self-correcting issue before anybody stepped in and provided the financial resources to make up for the shortfall.
One thing that seems to be the case now: I don’t know that fuel prices are really going to go down anymore. I think there are initiatives at work that want to keep the price of fuel as high as it is now, and that’s frustrating because I think that there are things we could be doing in this country that would help supply. Even though it’s a global system, supply and demand still has an impact on the pricing of things. Until we have a surplus, or all of it that we want, I think that we’re going to be stuck with high prices.
To be honest, if somebody could figure out a way to lower the cost at the well or at the pump, I’m afraid the government would tax something on it to make up the difference to keep [the price] up where it is right now.
Back in ‘97, there were ideas about alternative power sources and energy sources for making school buses do what they need to do, and none of them were working out very well. At the time, I don’t think they were necessarily engineered for student safety to the level that they needed to be compared to the existing power mechanisms. But we’re seeing a lot more going on now with alternative energy sources for powering the school buses.
Another change is that we have increasing bus prices that are just crazy. Whether it’s a clean air requirement or this or that, you just can’t manufacture a school bus at the reasonable prices that school districts were buying them for back in ‘97-99. Since then, the prices have gone up dramatically just on the clean air requirements. I think that the absolute cost of a school bus is a bigger factor in the cost of doing business than it used to be, and I don’t see that changing. And it’s not the fault of the manufacturers. It’s just the cost of doing business and the cost of what it takes to build a compliant vehicle.
We were dealing with school districts keeping buses longer than they should have, back when I was president before, and I know that at that time everybody was thinking, “Oh, we’ve got to get rid of those pre-77 school buses so that they meet the current safety standards.” I don’t know if anybody has any school buses that old anymore. Now, there’s a push to get rid of the buses that don’t meet the current clean air standards. But because the buses cost so much, that’s not easy to do.
Now, I don’t have any statistics on what’s going on with school bus replacement activities. When I was a state director, I could give you down to the gnat’s eyebrow how many old buses there were and whether school districts were on school bus replacement cycles that made sense so that they were operating a modern fleet. Because of the cost of school buses and just the financial resources that are available, I think there’s probably still a problem with people not replacing their school buses as regularly as they should.