Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools runs 1,268 school buses and transports 98,000 students.
Many who work in the pupil transportation industry got their start driving a school bus to help pay their way through college.
Todd Watkins, director of transportation for Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, had a different type of bus experience during his college years: He worked for the transit system at University of Maryland.
After he turned 18 in his freshman year, Watkins started driving a bus for the campus transit system, which is run by students and had 30 buses and 150 part-time student employees at the time. Watkins worked his way up, serving as a dispatcher, then overseeing the paratransit operation and then becoming the coordinator of the transit system in his senior year.
The experience proved to be formative. "I got a bachelor's degree in economics, but what I learned in that job led to my career," Watkins says.
Shifting to the yellow bus
After working for a University of Maryland professor while he earned his master's degree, Watkins joined the transportation department at Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).
Again, he worked his way up, serving as depot manager for a year and a half, then bus operations manager for six and a half years, then assistant director of transportation for five years.
Watkins worked with industry veteran John Matthews, who was the longtime director of transportation for MCPS until his retirement in 2009. Watkins was then appointed to the role.
MCPS runs one of the largest publicly owned school bus fleets in the U.S., with a total of 1,268 yellow units. The department transports 98,000 students to about 200 district schools and about 50 private special-education schools.
One of Watkins' objectives upon becoming director of transportation was to maintain and build upon the department's "Customer Delight" theme, which was implemented during Matthews' tenure.
"It instills in our employees the sense that we're here to serve — both our external customers and our internal customers," Watkins says.
The theme has a few components. "Delight Through Foresight" focuses on planning to improve service. "Expedite for Delight" identifies areas where tasks could be done more quickly. A new component, "Drive Right to Delight," was developed to help prevent complaints from the public about bus drivers' actions on the road.
The Customer Delight concept applies to "anyone we interact with at any level," Watkins says. "By considering people customers, it changes the nature of our interactions."
One of the goals at MCPS is for academic achievement to not be predictable by race.
"We're working throughout our entire system to figure out what that looks like," Watkins says. "A piece of it is students seeing — in buildings and on buses — folks from where they're from or that look just like them, doing a variety of jobs."
The transportation department has long been diverse at the driver and attendant level. More recently, the department has been working to add more diversity to its management team.
"That's been an area of priority," Watkins says.
There has also been a push to increase the number of management positions in general within the department, which has a total staff of about 2,100.
Several years ago, there was a ratio of one supervisor per 80 employees. Now, the ratio is down to 1:25. (The initial goal was 1:20, but it was adjusted temporarily due to budget concerns.)
Watkins says that the shift to more supervisors has been vital in helping the department improve its service to customers and its response time to any problems that come up.
The MCPS school bus fleet consists entirely of Type Cs and Ds, about 70 percent of which are Thomas Built.
Watkins says that the district has long maintained a strong working relationship with the manufacturer. He and other staff members make an annual trip to Thomas Built's High Point, N.C., headquarters to meet with engineers and executives for their pilot model inspection.
"We really get a sense that they care about our input," Watkins says.
He notes that some MCPS requests — including a different mirror configuration for their Type Ds and a repositioning of the emergency release for the front door — have become options or standard features on some Thomas Built models.
About 40 percent of the MCPS fleet is used for special-needs transportation, a proportion that reflects the district's dedication to students with disabilities.
"We're known for our special-ed services in Montgomery County," Watkins says.