Management

School Bus eXchange Drills Down on Keys for Success

Thomas McMahon
Posted on May 21, 2015
Bob Young (right), director of transportation at Boulder (Colo.) Valley School District, talks with other SBX attendees during a roundtable on operational efficiency.

Bob Young (right), director of transportation at Boulder (Colo.) Valley School District, talks with other SBX attendees during a roundtable on operational efficiency.

More than two dozen school transportation officials from across the country gathered near Dallas in April to share ideas and to network during the inaugural School Bus eXchange (SBX).

The groundbreaking event, held by the National Association for Pupil Transportation and School Bus Fleet, focused on connecting public and private school bus operators and industry suppliers to discuss solutions for common challenges in the industry.

The event took place April 6-8 at the Hilton Dallas/Rockwall Lakefront hotel. The school bus operators received full scholarships to attend SBX for free, while suppliers served as hosts.

Defining success
Keynote speaker Mark Aesch set the tone by encouraging attendees to identify the outputs of success for their operations. Examples for school transportation might include standards like 95% on-time school drop-offs, no preventable accidents, 90% parent/student satisfaction and operating within budget.

“If we don’t define success, guess who does: everybody else,” said Aesch, who is the CEO of consulting firm TransPro. “We have to define success.”

He recommended making “a transition to where we’re measuring the things that matters,” and developing a scorecard with various factors that boil down to one number. The goal, he said, is to “demonstrate that taxpayers are getting a return on their investment.”

One of the keys to a successful operation, Aesch said, is creating a culture of ownership among the staff. To illustrate that point, he told an anecdote about President John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1962. As the story goes, during a tour of the space center, Kennedy noticed a janitor and asked him what he was doing. The janitor’s reply: “I’m helping put a man on the moon, Mr. President.”

Aesch identified four types of employees:
• Rock stars demonstrate high performance and high alignment to the organization’s values.
• Rotten apples demonstrate low performance and low alignment to values.
• Investments demonstrate low performance but high alignment to values.
• Saboteurs demonstrate high performance but low alignment to values (e.g., gossiping at the water cooler).

Aesch recommended promoting the rock star employees to help the organization succeed in the long term. Investment employees should be given additional training to align their skills to help the agency succeed. Rotten apples and saboteurs should be terminated, Aesch said.

David Koskelowski (right), program manager for traffic safety and pupil transportation at the Wyoming Department of Education, meets with Branden Smeltzer, general manager of UltraLED.
David Koskelowski (right), program manager for traffic safety and pupil transportation at the Wyoming Department of Education, meets with Branden Smeltzer, general manager of UltraLED.

Peter Mannella, an NAPT board member and executive director of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, sums up a roundtable discussion on driver shortage.
Peter Mannella, an NAPT board member and executive director of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, sums up a roundtable discussion on driver shortage.
Enhancing efficiency
Steven Kalmes, owner of JSK Consulting and an NAPT board member, led the roundtable on operational efficiency. Participants talked about some of the challenges in optimizing efficiency, such as aging school bus fleets, growth in the student population, driver shortage and decreased funding.

Alex Robinson, executive director of the Office of Pupil Transportation at the New York City Department of Education, pointed to the need to tie school transportation efficiency and other initiatives to success in the classroom. At her department, “Anything we suggest has to be aligned with instructional goals,” she said.

As examples: Could vehicle tracking technology increase the on-time rate for buses arriving at schools? Could air conditioning in a bus positively impact a medically fragile student’s school day?

Some attendees noted that vendor input is important in making a case to purchase products that can enhance efficiency.

Prothro of Georgetown Independent School District suggested that vendors work to “come up with strategies for us to use, that we could present to the board to save money.”

Kalmes added that school transportation officials themselves need to sharpen their sales skills to get approval for efficiency-related initiatives.

“If you can improve your efficiency by changing school start times or calendars, you need to be a good salesman,” Kalmes said.

Building relationships
Another element of SBX was one-on-one consultations, in which school bus operators were given scheduled times to meet with school bus manufacturers and equipment suppliers. The idea was to help attendees learn about potential solutions for the challenges that their operations are facing.

Supplier input was a recurring theme during the event. The supplier representatives were encouraged to participate in all of the roundtable discussions.

SBX organizers also sought to provide ongoing networking opportunities, including during receptions and meals. Seats were assigned during some meals to encourage attendees to meet new people.

There were also several surprises for attendees throughout SBX. During the opening night reception, as school bus operators and suppliers mingled and sipped beverages, a magician made his way around the room and showed off some mind-boggling card tricks.

NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin served as the SBX emcee, keeping attendees focused on the event’s central theme of data-driven decision making. He also adopted some Texas flair, at one point taking the stage wearing a cowboy hat, red bandana and boots, bearing a striking resemblance — by his own admission — to Woody from the Toy Story movies.

Valuable experience
With a relatively small group of attendees, scheduled one-on-one consultations and increased supplier participation, SBX was different from most other industry conferences. Attendees seemed to appreciate the innovative format.

“One of the things that stood out the most for me was including the vendors in the roundtable discussions,” said Veronica Schmidt, transportation supervisor at Snohomish (Wash.) School District. “It was nice that they were able to give us input, perspective and feedback on some of the topics we were discussing.”

David Koskelowski, program manager for traffic safety and pupil transportation at the Wyoming Department of Education, described SBX as “fast-paced, focused and very well organized. Every attendee had a voice, and I learned I am not the only one having problems. It was an incredible group of professionals and a valuable event to attend.”

Related Topics: conferences, NAPT, School Bus eXchange

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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