When John Matthews started driving a school bus during college, he was unknowingly embarking on a long and successful career in pupil transportation.
“I graduated, and they never taught me how to get a real job,” he says. “So I kept moving up the ranks.”
Matthews made his first big jump to leadership at Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools as the acting director of transportation, after which he became assistant director. Later, he found his way back to the top spot — this time for good.
As transportation director, Matthews oversees one of the largest publicly-owned school bus fleets in the U.S. His operation has a lot of ground to cover. Its fleet of 1,273 buses transports more than 96,000 students daily to and from 245 schools over an area of 525 square miles.
The county, located northwest of Washington, D.C., is one of the wealthiest in Maryland but is diverse in a number of ways.
“We’re both urban and suburban,” Matthews says. “And our weather has 100-degree swings. We go from zero-degree temperatures in the winter to 100-degree temperatures in the summer.”
While he runs such a giant fleet, Matthews believes in the personal touches, an approach that he sums up simply: “Our motto for the department is Customer Delight.”
He says they’ve been building on this theme for a number of years. Although the goal is to delight the customer, “it doesn’t mean saying yes to everything,” Matthews notes. “It does mean giving people their just due, and giving them a reasonable response to a reasonable question.”
The approach has had a positive impact on the operation’s image in the community, which Matthews says wasn’t always so good. “It’s gotten a lot of accolades from our leaders about the way the perception of the department has changed,” he says. “At one time, it wasn’t a very positive perception. These days, it’s become much more so.”
In an effort to boost morale among employees, and to get them involved in the Customer Delight effort, Matthews offers one very simple yet effective motivator: cash. “The upper leadership team meets on a regular basis to review letters and other documents that come in on individual employees, and we give out Customer Delight awards,” Matthews says. “It’s $100 additional income in their check, to reward them for doing activities that have been ongoing to delight our customers.”
The department typically gives out about 20 of those $100 rewards in a year. “For a department our size, that’s not a lot of money, but it makes a big difference to the individuals who get recognized for the things that they do,” Matthews says.
Drivers and other employees are sticking around for more than just the a bonus here and there. Montgomery County Public Schools, says Matthews, is a great place to work for many reasons.
“We have a really good health care benefits package,” he says. “It’s very inexpensive and covers the entire family. We think that’s one of the most important things to people here.”
Many of Matthews’ drivers work to supplement their families’ income. Health care, of course, plays a big part in that.
Other perks that Matthews cites are a good wage, an employee-friendly bid system and a good relationship with the union. “We view our union as a customer too,” he says. “They’re partners with us in making this a better place for people to work.”
Montgomery County Public Schools is home to a rigorous training circuit that continues throughout the year. The state of Maryland requires that bus operators be observed driving in the field once every 24 months, but Montgomery County does it once a year. Observers are looking for attention to detail in terms of safety (turn signaling, proper lane changes, proper pre-trip inspections), making sure that skills are up to snuff.
A key change that’s under way in the department’s staff is in the number of managers, which is increasing over a period of four or five years. What once was a 1:80 ratio will be a 1:20 ratio. Matthews says that the new management structure provides added resources for employees when they need help, and it also creates a better career ladder for drivers and attendants aspiring to become part of the leadership team.
Many managers drive one shift in the morning or the afternoon, and when they’re not driving, they supervise about 20 people. “We can have them in the field doing observations while they’re driving,” Matthews says, adding that this will “enhance their ability to be in the field, where the rubber meets the road, and to know what’s going on.”
The district has worked hard to increase driver recruiting and retention. “It used to be that we didn’t pay them for training until they’d worked here for six months,” Matthews says. “Now we pay them as regular employees and let them ride on buses during their training period to gain some income so they’re not going for a long time unemployed and without a check.”
Matthews says that this has gone a long way in increasing operation morale and keeping new applicants coming. “When they walk through the door and say, ‘I want to be a bus driver,’ we take action right away to get them on the payroll and actively being paid from very early in the employment process. That, hopefully, will keep people here and more interested for a long period of time.”
Like people in all walks of life, Matthews has to keep a careful eye on his budget, and the item that is catching his eye the most lately is fuel prices.
“Every penny of change in the cost of fuel is a $33,000 change in my annual budget,” Matthews says. His fleet uses about 3.3 million gallons of fuel every year and travels around 20 million miles a year, so changes in fuel prices have a big impact on the bottom line.
Despite hard times economically, the operation has managed to stay a little more than fully staffed. Matthews says that when a predicted lapse in employee retention didn’t come to pass, it left the district with about 120 more employees now than last year. The problem, he says, is that those overages were “never really truly funded. Now we find ourselves in a position where we have all our people. It’s actually caught me in a slight budget shortfall, which is coupled with my fuel budget shortfall, which is, overall, not a good picture.”
However, he added that the overage in employees has enabled the district to eliminate driver shortages and route cancellations and, as a result, most complaints as well. Matthews says that the school system leaders understand. “They know that having enough people really does provide a higher level of service.”
The Montgomery County district runs a few different brands of buses, but Matthews really uses one word to describe the fleet: Thomas.
“We have 752 transit-style buses, all of which are Thomas Built,” he says.
All together, Montgomery County has 1,057 Thomas bodies in the fleet, with the remainder being a mix of Thomas and IC, generally 36- to 48-passenger buses. The Thomas transit-style buses are mainly 69- to 72-passenger frames, but they are configured in a 57-seat, 3/2 seating arrangement.
The district follows a state-mandated maintenance and inspection program, which includes three inspections per year and a 30-day general maintenance check on each bus. All preventive maintenance is monitored automatically with a software program that keeps track of requirements.
Matthews stresses the good relationship that his operation has with its vendors. “Thomas is highly represented in Montgomery County because they’ve worked very hard to be there,” he says. “They take our business with them very seriously, in that they are open to our criticisms and our suggestions for improvement when we see an issue or a problem. They’ve made modifications to their buses that are specific to Montgomery County.”
No district can afford to deal with big problems for too long, and Matthews realizes that. “We have to have a working partnership with our bus providers,” he says, “and that has paid us well in the way of success in being able to provide good service to our customers because of their help, cooperation and understanding of our needs.”
Matthews, in turn, is quick to recognize the needs of his drivers. Each bus is fitted with a six-way adjustable air seat that he says is a very high-quality, fairly expensive option. Buses are equipped with automatic transmissions and AM/FM radios, which allow drivers to monitor traffic.
In the pursuit of enhancing safety, each bus has been fitted with additional emergency exits. Going beyond what’s required, the operation’s large buses have three escape windows on both sides and two roof hatches in addition to the middle- and back-door exits.
Matthews says that the district also opts for tinted windows, which provide a unique solution to a common problem. “We buy tinted glass because we think that it helps with student control. They don’t get involved in outside activities with other motorists because they can’t be seen through the windows."