Editor’s Note: The following commentary was drawn from a speech given by Lee Larson at the 1999 National Association for Pupil Transportation conference in Denver. He attended the conference to introduce the Leland E.G. "Lee" Larson Quality Student Transportation Award.
Three years ago, I sold my companies and retired from the school bus business. You’ve heard the expression "through a glass darkly." I think my retirement has given me a little perspective on the school transportation industry. Here are eight issues that need to be addressed as we enter the new millennium.
1) It’s time that we paid decent wages to all persons involved in the industry. If you paid good wages, you would eliminate the driver shortage that has plagued the industry for the past decade. Our drivers are paid poorly compared to many other skilled workers. Although I’ve read studies that suggest that other factors more strongly influence hiring and retention, I believe that wages and benefits are the dominant attraction for individuals in our industry today. When you consider the direct and indirect costs of turnover, it takes away much of the "advantage" of keeping overhead down with a lower driver wage.
2) It’s time that you no longer allow your districts to balance their budgets on the back of transportation operations. Many years ago, teachers were expected to work for lousy wages with unlimited hours — because the profession was a "calling." Unions such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association finally managed to change this situation in the mid ’60s. Yet, pupil transportation is hearing the same rhetoric from districts — 40 years later. How dare they continue this nonsense, and for our industry to buy into it! It’s time to say, "No more!"
3) It’s time that we let go of 30 years of resistance to seat belts. How much longer will we insist on "being right"? It’s time to shift gears. The truth is that compartmentalization was a poor design concept, even though the intentions may have been good. Having already betrayed a generation of bus riders, how much longer will our industry be resistant to the millions of parents and children rightfully demanding seat belts on buses? We bought the feds’ arguments hook, line and sinker. It’s time to install seat belts in the nation’s buses.
4) It’s time for the industry to recognize that federal funding for pupil transportation is insufficient. This situation is unacceptable, especially when you look at the billions of federal dollars pumped into mass transit for capital, operations and research. It’s time to get mad and start demanding your fair share. To know what you’re missing, you can visit just about any transit system. It will be equipped with state-of-the-art computer systems. Also, look at the wages paid to transit workers. You will be shocked. This monetary advantage has given transit districts a feeling of superiority over school bus operations. It’s no wonder that a few years back the transit industry didn’t appear to be listening when the school bus industry voiced its concerns about transit buses transporting schoolchildren.
5) It’s time the industry gives up the ugly exchange of name-calling and accusations between district operators and contractors. This comes from a place called "fear." This industry needs to wake up and see that everyone can win through cooperation, not competition. The bottom line is that efficiency is not the sole test of a quality school bus operation. What counts is effectiveness, which includes accountability, customer service, system responsiveness, communication, budgeting and many other factors. All of this adds up to quality, which can be measured and should be the measuring stick against which everyone is judged — not the senseless and pitiful method of using cost as the key factor.
6) It’s time to start using technology — from computers to video cameras to sensors. You need to fully utilize the Internet and cooperative purchasing arrangements to implement new efficiencies that are readily available. Isn’t it insane that there are hundreds of parts repositories throughout the country, and you still can’t get parts on a timely basis? Go visit amazon.com or ebay.com or charlesschwab.com. Or any of the hundreds of companies that effectively operate online commerce. Want to buy a DVD or video? Go to reel.com and it will be in the mail the next day. Now try to do the same with any part you might need for your school bus. Can you order it online? Will you get the part in a few days? If the part is delayed, will you be notified promptly?
7) It is time that our drivers be allowed to drive and that buses with larger passenger loads be required to have adult supervision on board. I cannot imagine being a driver in charge of 60 to 80 middle-school kids and being expected to drive the bus safely and without incident. The time has come for drivers to have trained adult assistants in their buses.
8) It is time for the entire industry to become professional, with certification at all levels. The NAPT should be encouraging academic instructions to standardize curricula leading to associate, bachelor and graduate degrees in transportation with a pupil transportation emphasis. This would help to change this low-tech, staid industry into a truly professional one. An enterprising university could offer such classes via the Internet to take advantage of this educational and professional opportunity. Likewise, the NAPT could start offering certification courses via the Internet.
Let’s use our resources
Finally, I am hopeful that you realize what talent and resources you have here at NAPT. This association has done much for the pupil transportation industry — and is sorely needed to do even more. It needs to increase its presence to become a strong, forceful voice for the industry. It will take some courage and far-sighted leadership, but the time is right. Lee Larson is the former owner of School Bus Services, Larson Bus Sales and Larson Transportation Services in Gresham, Ore.