Tennessee’s last state director of student transportation, Ernest Farmer, retired in 1995. For more than 20 years afterward, the position remained unfilled. That changed after the 2016 fatal school bus crash in Chattanooga, which led to the appointment of Dr. Tammy Knipp as state director of student transportation at the Tennessee Department of Education last year. In this interview with SBF, Knipp discusses her background and her role in overseeing school bus safety, training standards, and regulation compliance in Tennessee.
1. It’s been many years since Tennessee had a designated state director. Can you give us some background on why the position was brought back?
Our department had not had someone serving in this dedicated role since 1995. However, the Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and the pupil transportation division of the Department of Safety continued advising in this area in the interim. Our new office of school safety and transportation builds on these longstanding partnerships to support its critical work.
In late 2016 and into 2017, our commissioner of education, Dr. Candice McQueen, sought to reinstate this role at the department and prioritize local support for transportation and safety. That was supported by House Bill 322, which served as one of the ways the state responded to the tragic loss of lives in a Chattanooga school bus crash on Nov. 21, 2016. The director position was reinstated through this legislation to provide leadership and accountability at the district and charter school levels to ensure compliance with federal and state law while maintaining a focus on zero student injury accidents. I consider it an honor to be chosen to lead the state in these school bus safety initiatives.
2. When did you start as state director, and what are your top objectives in the role?
Sept. 25, 2017, was my first day on the job. Based on department priorities and legislative amendments, my top objectives were easily identified and clearly defined. Top objective number one is safety. We immediately began educating supervisors and conducting monitoring visits for accountability. Top objective number two is to increase reliability and decrease variance among services so that all our student bus riders are afforded safe, reliable, and efficient transportation services every mile, every day.
3. Tell us about the progress that has been made so far toward those objectives.
The Department of Education and Department of Safety developed and provided training to all supervisors regarding House Bill 322. We also developed a more comprehensive student transportation management training program. All Tennessee supervisors [received] this training by September 2018. Since January 2018, over 50 districts and charter schools have been monitored for compliance with federal and state laws regarding the operation of school buses. Monitoring results are analyzed, feedback offered, and support provided. The most impactful improvement is the department’s new entry-level driver training standards with key performance indicators. This documented entry-level driver training program requires all potential school bus drivers to exhibit competencies in the classroom and behind the wheel before transporting students.
4. Tell us about your background before you started in this position.
Since initial employment as a middle school science and reading teacher, I have served in three different school systems as a school principal or central office administrator. In one district, I was the pre-K director, developing the transportation plan for transporting pre-K students. In two counties, I have served as the assistant director of operations and support, with direct oversight of the districts’ transportation supervisor. Over half my career has been involved with student transportation matters. Still, I think it noteworthy to recognize that the school bus industry is ever evolving, especially regarding safety. Continuing education is a must if I am to provide the level of support needed across the state.
5. What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found so far in your work as state director?
One surprise is the amount of variance of operations, mostly due to a lack of formal, standardized training and access to resources. The most affirming surprise is the many pockets of excellence who are utilizing our industry best practices. Their practices are being shared across the state to improve operations among all student transportation providers. Finally, it was surprising to discover the many different transportation models across the state. We have district-owned buses, independent and vendor-contracted services, shared services between different districts and charters, and some even use a combination of these models. Regardless, all our districts and charters have been extremely receptive to the training, monitoring, and level of support from the department. Student transportation is a family, and I am honored to serve as the student transportation director for the state of Tennessee.