With the arrival of the 2002-03 school year, the pupil transportation industry once again gears up for approximately 180 days of challenges. All challenges are not created equally, however, so we asked school transportation professionals from around the country to reveal their greatest challenge. Here's what they said.
We face the usual continuing challenges such as reducing the number of bus accidents, appropriately transporting preschool-age and non-ambulatory students, reducing diesel exhaust around the schools, maintaining or improving the level of service with ever-tightening budgets and ensuring good behavior on our middle-school buses.
But I think my biggest challenge this year is elevating the commitment to professionalism among all staff involved in our transportation program. Our service is a critical ingredient in the success of our schools. Drivers, attendants and support staff are highly visible symbols of the school district. Parents and the general public alike are probably not in school buildings very often, but they interact with our buses on the streets day in and day out. If our drivers and attendants model a high degree of professionalism in their work, the message is that our school district has its act together. Conversely, if the public witnesses unprofessional or unsafe behavior in the transportation program, they will naturally begin to wonder what else is wrong with the school district. Our staff already has a strong reputation, and I will be reinforcing this commitment to professionalism throughout the year
John P. Fahey
Buffalo City (N.Y.) School District
It's difficult to decide what will be the biggest challenge we will face this year. After April 19, 1995 [the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building] and Sept. 11, our world has changed so much that it is hard to predict what our biggest challenge will be. Perhaps that is our biggest challenge - trying to predict the unpredictable.
The biggest thing I see on the radar scope is the economic challenges we are facing. The current economic picture appears to be something we will have to deal with over a longer time than we expected. Things are very fragile at best. On Aug. 14, our office of state finance announced that July sales tax collections were down $43 million compared to the same period in 2001. This could translate into an 11 percent reduction in revenues to agencies, and, of course, schools. If the war on terrorism in the Middle East escalates, it will consume a vast amount of our federal budget. Our military is dependent on technology. While this saves many American lives, war becomes costly to wage. Third-World countries can throw bodies instead of million-dollar missiles.
When school budgets are cut, it seems that transportation is the first to be cut. But parents, boards of education and instructional staff and administrators do not want a reduction in services.
The manner in which we address issues such as exhaust emissions and occupant restraints will be impacted by the revenue we have to work with.
School Transportation Director
Oklahoma Department of Education
Middle school overload
The biggest problem will be the overcrowding situation we face in our middle school. Bus runs have to be adapted to pick up 25 percent of the sixth graders at their homes from all over the district to take them to an elementary school for classes. So that parents won't feel that their children are being short-changed, these routes will change every 10 weeks; a different group will attend classes in the elementary school, and all sixth graders will have done this by the end of the year.
Fortunately, I have seasoned drivers. Being adaptable is not a problem for us. The problem will be dealing with the parents! Other than that, I look forward to the challenge of getting off to a good start. I think things are pretty much un-der control.
As transportation director of one of the fastest-growing school districts in Arizona, I'd say my biggest challenges this school year will be maintaining a full staff roster, accommodating the constant increase in student ridership, providing a safe and reliable fleet and trying to meet the needs of all those who impact and influence pupil transportation in our school district, i.e., staff, colleagues, students, parents, patrons, school board members, etc.
On a personal note, having been a director for only 18 months I consider this "my year." Having reached a comfort level in the day-to-day operations, I now seek to proceed forward in staff development and training. My biggest challenge is to think outside the box and to offer my staff new and innovative ideas in all aspects of pupil transportation - taking them to new horizons not yet seen where learning is like breathing and tunnel vision is a thing of the past.
Cave Creek (Ariz.) Unified S.D.
Our biggest problem is really a challenge of priorities. To operate efficiently, the first thing we do is look very closely at our routing scheme to see if we can reduce the number of operating miles because we know that this generates the need for parts, repairs, fuel, labor and so on. If we need to make a budget cut, we would look at a given program and ask if we would be alright without that program.
When we are looking at tightening our belts, we look internally to see if hours of employees could be cut back. For example, I have a crew of people who look through the videotape machines every night to make sure they are working right. If we need to tighten the belt, I might not have them do that.
Mansfield (Texas) Independent School District
A continued stable means to finance public schools. Oregon, like many states, has experienced serious budget shortfalls due to a decrease in tax revenue from a sagging economy. Many districts are faced with difficult decisions. What core services should be provided as financial resources dwindle? It is up to each of us to communicate to parents, schools and the community that our transportation services are the safest and most efficient available. Also, the best option for home-to-school transportation is still the yellow bus.
Beaverton (Ore.) School District
Deficit takes toll
Budget cuts will again be the biggest challenge in the upcoming school year. Last year we looked at reducing secondary student transportation and charging fees for some services, while reducing administrative costs.
These issues will arise again, with a projected $2 billion to $4 billion bi-annual state budget deficit.
Saint Paul (Minn.) Public Schools
Keeping drivers informed
There are so many pressing issues at this time in the pupil transportation industry. Each day we are struggling to keep up with the latest issue, whether it be car seats, emissions, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, weapons on buses or having enough money to get the job done. They all pose challenges for transportation managers.
The biggest challenge for me this year is the same challenge I deal with year after year, but it becomes more of a challenge every day with the pressures of the world bearing down on the people I rely on to get the job done. That chal-lenge is to be sure that my drivers have the latest information, the best tools and enough training to go out there day after day, keep their minds on their job and get the students where they need to be safely.
Liverpool (N.Y.) Central School District
Severe driver shortage
We have a severe shortage of drivers. To fight it, we have booths set up in the area and we advertise job openings in the newspaper and on the radio. Basically, we go out and ask anyone we can find if they would like to drive a school bus and then make sure they get the right credentials. We also go to the local Head Start programs for 4-year-olds and talk to parents who are getting ready to put their last child in school. That is where we get most of our new drivers.
Carter County Schools
Our school district is in a suburban/ rural area and does not face many of the problems encountered by those who make the headlines. Yet, this is not to say that we have an operation without challenges.
With 95 bus drivers, our greatest challenge is ensuring that each maintains a level of professionalism. Though our history is free of serious crashes resulting in severe injury or death, we have had too many "incidental" accidents resulting from driver negligence, apathy or disregard for policy.
The greatest challenge facing us this year will be to change this pattern by applying consistent, professional defensive driving skills and observing district policy relative to backing and to unscheduled digressions from the route.
Head Bus Driver/Driver Instructor
Clarence Central School District
Clarence Center, N.Y.
Our No. 1 problem is discipline on the school buses. Bullying, which starts in elementary school, is an especially big problem for us. Parents, children and administrators just don't understand the role of the bus driver in student discipline. So we try to educate everyone the best we can with in-service training and strong guidelines.
Cheatham County Schools
Ashland City, Tenn.