Olentangy Local School District has experienced significant growth in its student enrollment over the past few years — adding 500 additional students each year. For the district’s transportation department, this rapid expansion in the number of students served meant more than just adding more students on buses. The population increase required a wealth of new policies and practices to ensure that routing efficiency, enhanced staff management, and community involvement were at the forefront of the district’s operations.
With more than 10,400 students transported daily on 156 route buses, the district has become the sixth largest in the state based on student enrollment alone, according to its self-reported numbers for the 2018-19 school year.
“We grow, of course, each year, but we’ve closely watched our rate of adding routes,” says Lori Carter-Evans, the district’s transportation director. “While we are a growing district, we are very efficient, and we’ve been able to successfully scale our operations year after year.”
Much of the scaling Carter-Evans refers to has been in large part because of the district’s transportation eligibility policy, which was implemented back in 2005. The policy focuses on the students who are eligible for school transportation based on whether there are sidewalks within the student’s subdivision.
As the district builds new subdivisions that are adjacent to its schools — approximately a mile away from a student’s school and also where sidewalks are completed — Carter-Evans says the district will notify parents within the following school year if they fall into a “no transport zone.”
“In our district, we also transport to our non-public, private schools, so we have to enhance our efficiencies [in transportation] to ensure that students who are eligible [to ride the bus] are the only ones that we’re providing transportation for,” she adds.
Olentangy updated its eligibility policy this year to plan for better routing and to minimize the district’s costs associated with increasing enrollment. Carter-Evans says these updates are what helped contribute to the transportation team having one of its most successful starts to the school year for 2019-20, all while incorporating feedback from its bus drivers.
Feedback Cuts Shortage
Getting feedback from drivers remains a top priority for most school districts, especially given the nation’s ongoing bus driver shortage. While the national shortage may not be an issue at Olentangy, Carter-Evans says the district actively works to combat driver shortage by ensuring that all 168 of its drivers and 21 support staff members are involved in planning operations.
For years, Olentangy Local School District has partnered with its local union on training and operational resources, but it wasn’t until last year that the district created a second routing task force to review its bus routes before the start of the school year. The task force, consisting of two committees, includes the district’s transportation supervisors, two routing secretaries, a handful of the district's bus drivers, and Carter-Evans.
“We just tried to take a more proactive approach in how we put our routes together,” she explains. “We wanted drivers to have the chance to come in and review [their routes] a few days before they have to select them and any changes that need to be made — even after the review process. It’s really an open-door policy.”
During the committee meetings, Carter-Evans says she also identifies the routes that require additional driver training just to be more transparent in the review process and, in turn, boost driver retention.
In addition to increased involvement, Olentangy's competitive pay scale contributes significantly to its lack of driver shortage, she adds. The district currently pays its new drivers $19.45 per hour, and if they have prior driving experience with another school district or transportation company, then the district will credit them for that experience (up to 10 years) in pay.
Enhanced Training Tactics
Of course, for drivers with more experience comes new training requirements, Carter-Evans says, and Olentangy Local School District prides itself on its robust driver training program.
If a driver was hired at the district within the last year, regardless of their amount of prior driving experience, the transportation team will hold mandatory follow-up training throughout the school year to review safety procedures, student management strategies, and special-needs transportation protocols.
“We also give them hands-on training for securing safety vests and operating the lifts on the bus and we conduct a bus safety evacuation for both new and veteran drivers,” Carter-Evans adds.
In Ohio, all school bus drivers are required to complete a total of four hours of in-service training, but Carter-Evans says Olentangy Local School District goes beyond that by using a more hands-on approach.
“I think any training or information that we can give them throughout the school year — making it fun — helps keep them engaged,” she explains.
One new training initiative that was implemented last school year enlisted the help of local emergency response teams. The transportation department partnered with local emergency responders, including sheriff departments and highway patrol officers, to create a video showcasing how school bus drivers can use proper radio communication in the event of an emergency.
“It was a one-time training, coupled with the radio usage to show our drivers the importance of their communication, and also what to do in case someone unexpectedly boards their bus,” Carter-Evans says. "The drivers really enjoyed this, and we plan to make future training videos within our department for professional development."
Making Room For More Growth
At the end of the day, Carter-Evans says being able to adapt to internal and external changes district- and community-wide is key to building a successful transportation department. With Olentangy Local School District's growing student population, she adds that there is always room for new trainings, technology, and cross-departmental partnerships.
The district recently worked with Tyler Technologies to equip their buses with GPS units and is starting a pilot program for a new bus tracking app for parents called My Stop.
“The pilot is starting this year, but we’re just rolling it out slowly to ensure that it’s secure,” Carter-Evans says. “We’re going to do some internal testing first with our IT department, and then plan to have the app available for use by parents hopefully by the end of next school year.”
The main goal for implementing the app, she says, is to have more transparency between parents and the transportation department about bus locations and arrival times.
Olentangy is also prepping to launch a new field trip program to review its procedures and how schools can request transportation service for trips.
“Right now, we don’t have a web-based field trip program where school staff, coaches, and teachers can request field trips,” Carter-Evans explains. “This is what we’re working on with Transfinder, and we plan to use the field trip program they have.”
As for the department’s maintenance practices, the district is in the process of creating a comprehensive technician training program for its fleet staff. While Olentangy Local School District currently operates an all-diesel fleet, Carter-Evans says she wants build a regular technician training schedule to ensure the district's mechanics skills are sharpened just as much as its bus drivers.