The desire to serve students and remain behind the scenes while doing so is what Michael Wagner is known for among his colleagues.
Having worked for several years as an educator, first as a special-education teacher, then as assistant principal, and eventually becoming Dean of Students in suburban Chicago, Wagner made the leap into the world of pupil transportation in 1978. Since he had been responsible for securing transportation at all three school districts he worked for, he had substantial experience in the area.
At the contractors he has worked for, Wagner has consistently gone above and beyond to improve student transportation, especially for special-needs students. He began this endeavor at a time when few, if any, standards for transporting special-needs students existed.
Early on in his career in pupil transportation, he helped develop the first national standard for transportation of students with wheelchairs, and was instrumental in starting an annual conference on transporting special-needs students.
“He is Mr. Go-To for special education,” says Donald Fowler, president of Fowler Bus Co. Richmond, Mo., and a colleague of Wagner’s.
Wagner has also been a champion for small school bus companies. His colleagues commend him for helping them to grow their businesses, make connections, and build relationships.
For his dedication to safe student transportation and his achievements in special-needs transportation and expanding his business, School Bus Fleet has named Michael Wagner its 2019 Contractor of the Year. SBF Associate Publisher Mark Hollenbeck presented the award at the National School Transportation Association’s (NSTA’s) annual meeting in Austin, Texas, on July 23.
Wagner spent 25 years at Cook-Illinois Corp., the first school bus company he joined, working his way up from general manager to senior executive vice president.
In 2003, he turned his attention to helping expand small school bus companies, such as Southwest Transit, Illinois Central School Bus, Sunrise Transportation, and Fowler Bus Co.
Wagner joined Lakeview Bus Lines in 2007 as chief financial officer and partner. He was drawn by the opportunity to work with Dawn Johnson, the majority owner of the female-run business at the time, who co-runs the business with him to this day.
Johnson started the small company in 1988 and it had a lot of opportunity for growth, Wagner recalls. The company had about 40 buses at the time, and today there are now 250 in its fleet, transporting more than 5,000 students daily. (About 80% of the buses in the fleet are used to transport special-needs students.)
“We got to expand together,” Wagner says.
Wagner contributed to Lakeview’s growth with his ability to help the company obtain financing for equipment. He was also able to attract personnel with a knack for exceptional customer service and, most importantly, a passion for safely transporting kids to and from school.
“Our first company slogan was, ‘The safety of our children comes first,’” Wagner says.
Special-Needs Service Passion
Wagner’s first experience working with special-needs students actually happened well before he embarked on a career in education; it was during the first Special Olympics World Games competition, which was held in Chicago, in 1968. He organized transportation for the athletes, a significant challenge at a time when many special-needs students didn’t even get to go to school due to the lack of transportation available to them.
“I got a hold of a company that provided school buses, and assistance from several private transportation companies,” Wagner explains. “We had a lot of station wagons and some small school buses. Type As were around, but were few and far between.”
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he responded to this dearth of options by working with staff to devise a side-facing system for securing students in the bus.
“We went from putting students’ wheelchairs in the back of a station wagon, and the kids in the back seat, to having specially equipped buses for transporting students with wheelchairs,” Wagner points out.
In 1983, Wagner kicked off his extensive body of committee work by co-chairing a special-education writing committee for the state of Illinois as part of the National Congress on School Transportation to help create standards for transporting students in wheelchairs.
“Before that, they had no regulations for special-needs transportation,” Wagner says.
That led him to team up with Roseann Schwaderer, owner of consulting agency Edupro Group, on putting together the first national conference in special-needs transportation in Dallas, Tex., in 1992. It eventually evolved into the Transporting Students With Disabilities and Special Needs Conference, one of the most prominent events held on special-needs student transportation in the U.S.
Wagner then worked with scholars from the University of Virginia, University of Pittsburgh, and University of Michigan, who helped with crash testing and with developing standards for transporting students with wheelchairs, including a national standard: WC18.
Today, standards for transporting students in wheelchairs create significantly safer transportation, Wagner says.
“When you look back, at 1979 and 2000, it’s like night and day.”
Wagner says that he is driven to provide exceptional student transportation, especially to special-needs students, because he loves kids and tries “to do whatever I can to help and protect our children.”
“They deserve the opportunity to get to school and they are [educated and] able to get into the workforce because of what we started,” he adds.
Championing Small Businesses
As he did with Lakeview Bus Lines, Wagner has helped small school bus companies expand by offering valuable advice and helping them forge partnerships.
Fowler, who worked with Wagner when they served on the NSTA board of directors together, notes that although Wagner hasn’t taken a formal top leadership position in an organization such as the NSTA, he has always encouraged his colleagues. When Fowler was president of the NSTA, Wagner helped him significantly as a sounding board, he says.
“He’s always in the background, helping people, giving advice, pushing everyone to do better,” Fowler adds. “He never wants to take credit for anything.”
Robert (Bob) Hach, president and CEO of Sunrise Transportation in Crestwood, Ill., who has worked with Wagner on various NSTA committees and on state legislation through the Illinois Association for Pupil Transportation, adds that Wagner has a gift for bringing people together, which helped him when he worked for a large school bus company looking to create relationships with smaller bus businesses.
“He introduced me to small contractors who were ready to retire or sell. He helped open up some of those relationships so I could help them,” Hach says. “He was a spokesperson for and supporter of smaller contractors.”
Lakeview Bus Lines boasts a nearly 90% driver retention rate. This could be due to the fact that Wagner places an emphasis on creating a supportive work environment, and even gets behind the wheel himself when necessary.
That environment includes rooms that employees can spend time in between their morning and afternoon shifts, engaging in a variety of activities, ranging from playing games to exercising to participating in a book club, or just enjoying some quiet time.
That’s just one example of Wagner’s efforts to retain good employees and keep morale high, Hach says.
“That was a keen insight, that something like that would be good for morale and teamwork,” he adds. “He has made a point of trying to accommodate people’s likes, especially in this day and age, when drivers are so critical.”
Lakeview Bus Lines also shows appreciation for its employees by giving them turkeys for Thanksgiving and hams for Christmas. Additionally, the company hosts parties throughout the year, supports them with ongoing training, and offers and contributes to a 401(k) retirement plan.
“School bus driving can be very frustrating, and you need to stay in touch with your employees on a regular basis, continually encourage them, and let them know that what they’re doing is extremely important,” Wagner says. “It’s hard to find good, qualified drivers. And when you do, you need to do everything you can to keep them. We try to constantly make them aware of the great job they’re doing.”
Another way that Wagner shows his support is by covering routes when the company is short on drivers.
“The last five years I have been driving a lot,” he says. “There are times when our building is completely empty. Sometimes everyone is out driving.”
Advocate For The Disabled
In addition to his lifelong dedication to improving transportation for special-needs students, Wagner has also committed to helping people with disabilities.
He has served on several related local, state, and national boards, as well as the board of directors for the United Cerebral Palsy Association, and regularly donates to the Special Olympics World Games.