With budgets continuing to present challenges for yellow bus operations, the board of education for a school district can either be seen as an ally or an adversary for those providing pupil transportation.
“School board members have a challenging duty to do what is best for the students while being financially responsible to their community,” says Tim Flood, executive vice president of The Trans Group in Spring Valley, N.Y. “Whether it is a system that operates its own fleet or outsources to a contractor, both operations have to work within the funding and policies approved by the board. With less funding each year, it hasn’t been a matter of implementing new programs so much as trying to maintain existing ones.”
For Frederick Remelius, director of operations at Upper Merion Area School District in King of Prussia, Pa., replacing the district’s rapidly aging bus fleet at $85,000 per bus while the district is facing “severe financial stress” has been difficult.
However, he says his district’s school board has been “very supportive of the transportation department to the best of its fiscal abilities.”
How did Remelius gain the board’s support? By showing its members how a lack of funding for new buses, for example, would impact the district long term.
“I developed a simple spreadsheet to show the impact of not spending $425,000 for five buses this year means spending $850,000 next year, $1,275,000 in three years, and so on to catch up,” he explains. “That was a hard pill for the board to swallow when they are looking at reducing staff at the same time, but having a graphic about the aging of our fleet made the problem easier for them to understand and support us.”
Helping the board understand how financial decisions that impact transportation also impact the school district as a whole is one facet of gaining support for transportation. You must also show the school board why yellow bus service matters, because it contributes to what is ultimately both pupil transportation officials’ and school board members’ goal: improving students’ educational experience.
Here are five tips that can help make that happen.
1. Make yourself known. Board members will be more inclined to be advocates for transportation if they know who’s involved in providing school bus service for students and everything it takes to keep service running smoothly.
Nicole Portee, executive director of transportation services at Denver Public Schools, suggests attending board meetings and community events where board members will be present.
“I don’t suggest going to everything that occurs, but I suggest being diligent about broader district conversations where board members play a big role or transportation can be somewhat impacted as a result of a change that’s occurring,” she says. “It pays to go out, introduce yourself, let them know who you are and let them know that you’re involved. When you do that, board members aren’t afraid to ask a particular question or advocate for the transportation department because they know that you are involved.”
Michael Shields, director of transportation and auxiliary services at Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Salem, Ore., says that in addition to getting to know board members professionally, it’s important to build strong working relationships with the district superintendent and other executive-level district personnel who communicate directly with the board, such as the assistant superintendent, the chief operating officer or the chief of staff.
2. Come to meetings prepared, with data. Remelius says — and as his earlier example about funding for bus replacements suggests — transportation directors or supervisors must be able stand confidently before board members at meetings with easy-to-understand spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations to “point out the facts from a business perspective” about the cost of running a transportation department safely.
“Many transportation departments have to compete for that $85,000 bus against, for example, a potential teacher layoff, which also costs about $85,000, and we need to be able to justify our needs with the same conviction, facts and figures as the parents who will be complaining about their favorite program being cut,” he says.
“I’ve put presentations together to give an overview of who we are,” Portee adds. “You have to get to the core of the operation. It’s very beneficial because they start to realize that your department is more than just the yellow bus.”
Pete Meslin, director of transportation, Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Costa Mesa, Calif., advises keeping presentations to the school board at 10 minutes or less.
“If you can do it in five minutes, that’s even better,” he says. “Make your key point within the first two minutes. If it’s any more than that, it detracts from your efforts. This strategy is also effective when dealing with district cabinet-level officials.”
Shields agrees. “The board is busy — stick with high-level items, and focus on how everything relates to education,” he says. You also want to know your district’s position [on items you’re discussing/presenting].”
(Shields says vetting your information with the district superintendent, assistant superintendent or other executive-level individuals prior to presenting at a board meeting will help in understanding the board’s position on specific topics.)
3. Provide regular updates on your operation’s activity. Whether you work for a school district’s transportation department or you work for the bus company that provides yellow bus service for a school district, officials say you will be doing your operation a disservice if school board members aren’t routinely kept abreast of what’s happening at the operation and what issues are impacting transportation.
“I consider it my role to support the administration with data, to always be available to present the data to the board and to work with everyone cooperatively while finding creative solutions for current issues,” says Ron Ernenwein, president of AA Transportation in Shrewsbury, Mass. “In most cases if the board is not cooperating, it is only because no one has given them the documented facts of the issue.”
“Don’t just rely on that once per year spotlight at budget time to show your department’s value,” Remelius adds. “I send a weekly update to the superintendent, cabinet and principals that always includes information on what the transportation department is doing so the value of its service stays fresh in their minds.”
Providing updates such as how many bus drivers passed their physical exam and drug test, how many gallons of fuel were purchased and how much it cost, and specifics on what’s necessary to keep buses well maintained illustrates the complexity of a school bus operation, he adds.
Flood says the Trans Group’s companies work to educate the school board members and district administrators about the parent company’s commitment to delivering excellent service, and when necessary, officials will discuss solutions to challenges related to a specific district or districts served by the company.
“We also place importance on educating school boards and administrators on trends happening across the country throughout the school bus industry,” he adds.
4. Respond to issues promptly. Portee and Meslin emphasize the importance of responding to communications from school board members in a timely manner, particularly if the communication involves a concern related to transportation.
“It is our responsibility to respond honestly, promptly and professionally when an issue is forwarded to us from the board,” Meslin says. “If it is a complaint, instead of defending our actions or inactions, we find it far more effective to explain them and, if necessary, explain our rationale. If action is required, we make sure it is performed properly. One of the secrets of our success is that as we fix problems we also fix processes.”
Portee says that because she has made an effort to introduce herself to board members, they know that she is heavily invested in the well-being of students and their transportation, so board members forward communications from concerned parents or community members to her, enabling her to quickly respond to those concerns.
5. Share your department’s successes. Meslin notes that he is fortunate that Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s board has taken an active interest in his department’s services and recognizes the difference his team makes in the lives of students.
Sharing the department’s successes has helped to facilitate this interest and support. “We make certain to let them [board members] know about significant events where they can see what we do and share with us as we celebrate around our students,” Meslin says. “So our board members are invited and attend our startup event, our driver appreciation event, and our annual Halloween haunted house for students with special needs.
“The fact is that many in our business do heroic things every day. School boards love to hear these stories, especially as it shows how far ‘above and beyond’ we will go for our students.”
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