FORT DODGE, Iowa — Next Tuesday, Fort Dodge Community School District (FDCSD) employees will bid farewell to Chris Darling, who is retiring after 21 years with the district and 27 and a half years in the industry.
Darling got his start in pupil transportation as a school bus technician at Waverly-Shell Rock Community Schools in Waverly, Iowa. He also later served as a school bus driver and the assistant transportation director.
Darling told SBF in a recent interview that having all of these responsibilities provided him with experience that he took with him when he joined FDCSD.
The district transports 1,500 to 1,700 students with 39 buses on 20 regular routes and seven special-needs routes over 165 square miles. The department also runs routes for several special programs and a Catholic school.
Darling is currently director of operations at the district, where he oversees the transportation, maintenance and custodial departments. However, when he was hired, he stepped into the director of transportation position, and he said district officials wanted “a lot of things changed.”
One of the first things Darling implemented was a comprehensive training program for new bus drivers, which is still in place, and which he said has reduced the number of accidents that occur during out-of-town trips.
“The program has several phases, so that when the driver gets behind the wheel, they feel comfortable, and you can send them on a long trip and feel comfortable that they know what they’re doing,” Darling said. “We put in a 60-trip training period. They have to drive a route by themselves 60 times before they can drive on an out-of-town trip.”
He also improved the district’s bus loading and unloading process by creating a central transfer point at a local stadium, which ensures that all students are safely on the buses before drivers begin their routes. Previously, buses would pick up students in “waves,” leaving some unattended on sidewalks in front of schools for 12-15 minutes until another bus arrived.
Darling began using an automated routing system as well, which he said has made the transportation department more efficient. Routes have been downsized, and about 45% of bus stops that required students to cross the street to board the bus were eliminated.
Most recently, a computerized school building maintenance program was implemented and new digital radios were installed in the buses to meet the FCC’s upcoming narrowbanding requirement.
In 1999, SBF named FDCSD one of its Great Fleets Across America, and in 2002, it was selected by SBF as one of the nation’s Top 10 Maintenance Programs. These recognitions, Darling said, gave the FDCSD staff “a lot of pride.”
Darling has remained active in the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association throughout his career, serving as a board member. Among his achievements was the passage of Senate House file 2154 in 2003-04, which allows school bus drivers in the state to report stop-arm violations using the motorist’s license plate number rather than a description of the driver.
Darling worked closely on this effort with Max Christensen, executive officer of school transportation at the Iowa Department of Education, and the two have been friends for many years.
Darling spoke highly of Christensen. “He’s a very impressive individual; he’s done a lot of great things for the state of Iowa,” he said.
The two first worked together in the mid-1990s when Christensen applied for a school bus driver position at FDCSD. Christensen worked at the district for three years before moving to another operation and ultimately becoming state director.
“I credit Chris for a lot of my success,” Christensen told SBF. “If I hadn’t worked with Chris and learned from him in those three years, I question if I’d be in the position I’m in today. I truly respect him, and am going to miss him.”
Christensen noted that he has often sought Darling’s input on various pupil transportation issues, as he has a “very level head.”
(Also noteworthy about Darling, according to Christensen, is the hair on his head. “The man has the most perfectly groomed hair, regardless of the weather,” he said with a laugh. “The only time I’ve seen it messed up was when there was a bus accident at the district [FDCSD] while I was working there.”)
And while he won’t miss getting up early to check road conditions, he will miss his staff and the students they serve.
“No one is successful alone, and I have had great people to work with over the years,” Darling said. “Two individuals that deserve my utmost appreciation and gratitude would be Transportation Site Manager Tammy Oester and Maintenance Site Manager Travis Filloon. Both are very dedicated and give 100% on a daily basis, and I am confident that they will both be very successful long into the future.”