Directors (from left) Chris Ellison, Michael Shields, Pete Meslin and Peter Lawrence continue their discussion of issues facing the industry.
In our February issue, four prominent transportation directors discussed key issues facing the school bus industry.
The talk took place at the most recent National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) Summit and was moderated by SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon.
Here, in the second half of their conversation, the directors delve into ways to ensure the industry’s continued success, such as building up the next generation of leaders and developing consistent performance measurements.
The roundtable participants are:
• Peter Lawrence, director of transportation at Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District
• Pete Meslin, director of transportation at Newport-Mesa Unifi ed School District in Costa Mesa, Calif.
• Michael Shields, director of transportation at Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Salem, Ore.
• Chris Ellison, director of transportation at Greater Albany (Ore.) Public Schools and president of the Oregon Pupil Transportation Association (OPTA)
If you missed the first half of the discussion, see pg. 32 in the February 2011 issue or go here.
SBF: What are some other key issues that the school bus industry is dealing with?
MICHAEL SHIELDS: We’ve got to look at changing our image, and we need to do that by examining how we are perceived and presenting ourselves in a different light.
Our district, when I arrived, was perceived as the bus company. We really weren’t part of the school district. Now, when we go out into the schools and do our interviews with principals and office managers, our staff tells our story. We make a relational connection with that school. We’re after the same type of person internally that they want — our value systems are shared. The bus driver that’s interviewing understands that this is about kids — this isn’t necessarily about buses. What that does when we go to administrator meetings is we’re received warmly and openly.
The other thing we have to look at is performance measures. All of the districts represented here manage pretty soundly. But we have peers out there that we need to figure out ways to offer non-threatened peer reviews to, where we say, “Here are the tips and tricks. Here’s how we do it. How can we reach out our hand to you? Can we offer co-op or regional services?” Maybe they’re a small district, and they can’t do the training. Well, if I charge them XYZ, I can add another .5 FTE [full-time equivalent] to my driver trainer pool. Or maybe a full FTE, and I can do three other districts. They don’t have to have a driver trainer now, and I get the benefit, and they get the benefit, of us providing the state-mandated classes and the refresher courses. We have to start thinking about sharing services.
Pete Meslin is director of transportation at Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Costa Mesa, Calif.
PETE MESLIN: That’s a very tough nut to crack. We’ve been trying in our district for the last four or five years to build partnerships with other local districts. There are huge efficiencies to be had if, for example, we’re taking a student to a nonpublic school 30 miles away. Why don’t we pick up students from other schools and school districts that are going there as well? This type of process is very difficult to implement, because transportation people tend to have a mindset like, “I don’t do it, I’m not in control, something’s going to go wrong, and I have no ability to fix it.” So I agree with you completely — we have to change that whole way of thinking.
CHRIS ELLISON: One thing we’ve started with OPTA is a dialogue with other districts. OPTA sponsors a roundtable forum every other month, with dinner provided. We have a host location and a predetermined topic. We’ve had 20 to 25 people from probably six or seven nearby districts. It’s a best-practices type of thing. People glean ideas off of each other and take them back to their operation. We’re looking at that as a resounding success. That dialogue has been presented, and it’s a chance to network and get to know your neighbor.
SHIELDS: One of the things that I find: I’ve been in a number of districts in my career, and all of them have faced different challenges. In one district, the fishing and logging industry was down, so they were closing schools. It was a matter of survival. Another district I was in doubled in size, and it was a matter of keeping up. Interestingly enough, for both, expectations exceeded resources.
When we’re not performing well in the eyes of the education folks, what happens is they call for a study. Then they come in and look at the leadership and the management. But generally what I find is that the expectations have exceeded the resources that are available and the willingness to make adaptations and the types of school bell times that are necessary to provide some cost reductions. The thing that we have to do is rethink how we do business.
Also, we need to start growing our own. The PDS [Professional Development Series] program that NAPT puts on is a great thing. We need to drive that down regionally or by state.