Low morale. Buses breaking down. Buses running late. Those were a few of the critical issues facing John Franklin when he arrived at Atlanta Public Schools in May 2014.
The transportation department had “a fractured work culture,” as Franklin puts it. And despite owning some of the newest school buses in Georgia, the fleet was plagued by mechanical failures that racked up big towing bills.
As executive director of transportation for Atlanta Public Schools, Franklin has spearheaded a turnaround that has ramped up the reliability and efficiency of the fleet while boosting relations with employees and the public. All this for a large metropolitan operation that runs nearly 300 route buses in some of the nation’s worst traffic to transport 27,000 students to and from school.
“Atlanta Public Schools went through several transportation directors prior to John, and he gave them what they needed most at the time: leadership with a vision for continuous improvement,” says Mark Lindstrom, former director of transportation for neighboring district Marietta City Schools. “His visionary leadership has been the key.”
For his tireless efforts to provide safe and efficient pupil transportation in Atlanta and elsewhere throughout his career, School Bus Fleet has named Franklin its 2017 Administrator of the Year. The award was presented at the National Association for Pupil Transportation conference in Columbus, Ohio, in November.
Grad School Meets School Bus
Franklin’s career in pupil transportation can be traced back to a 3x5 card.
While working on a graduate degree in public administration and information systems in 1995, Franklin sought a part-time job. In the student employment office at Southwest Texas State University, he spotted an index card advertising school bus driver openings for a local school district.
“I called the director, and a week later I was driving a bus,” Franklin recalls.
As it turned out, the side gig influenced the direction of his graduate work. For his research project, Franklin took on a pupil transportation topic, conducting an analysis of a small school district that was privatizing its school bus service.
After grad school, Franklin initially worked in other fields, but it wasn’t long before he returned to the yellow bus world. In 1999, he applied and was hired to become assistant director of transportation for San Antonio Independent School District. Seven years later, in 2006, Franklin was named director of transportation for Southwest Independent School District, also in San Antonio.
Franklin’s next role took him out of Texas to Florida, where he was hired as general manager of transportation for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa in 2007. His mandate was to implement a transportation improvement plan that had been developed by consultants.
“It was a complete reorganization of everything: new job descriptions, new call center, new board-approved route standards,” Franklin says. “It was a gigantic task.”
Among Franklin’s achievements at Hillsborough was a $9 million decrease in routing costs by implementing tiered service and making better use of bus capacity. Still, his work in the Sunshine State wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“He came on board in some treacherous waters,” says Brook Negusei, manager of Transafe Transportation, which provides service for special-needs students. “There was plenty of controversy, but he worked through it and dynamically changed the way bus service was provided and changed much in the organization.”
After seven years at Hillsborough County Public Schools, Franklin stepped down and headed north to Georgia, where an even bigger challenge awaited him.
“Atlanta Public Schools went through several transportation directors prior to John, and he gave them what they needed most at the time: leadership with a vision for continuous improvement.”
Mark Lindstrom, former director of transportation
Marietta (Ga.) City Schools
Tackling Transportation Issues
When Franklin took the helm of transportation at Atlanta Public Schools in 2014, the department was running at “all-time lows,” according to Dr. Larry Roberts, executive director of Continuous Growth Inc.
“The work environment had no structure, there was low employee morale, buses were consistently late picking and dropping off children, and at least 35% to 45% of [the] bus fleet was down due to mechanical problems,” says Roberts, who was consulting with the district to help operations departments meet their performance goals.
Franklin’s first area of focus was the personnel issues. He evaluated transportation employees’ performance and their ability to carry out the department’s mission of providing safe and on-time transportation. What he found was a need for restructuring and turning over some of the ranks.
“There were just some people who weren’t going to get on board. … They certainly weren’t there for the betterment of the organization,” Franklin says.
He also saw a need to set clearer standards by developing an employee handbook, and to be consistent in enforcing those standards. At the same time, Franklin let his staff know that he would have an open-door policy and would listen to any of their concerns.
Another strategy that Franklin deployed was a reward system in which employees are recognized for strong performance in such areas as attendance, customer service, bus pre- and post-trip inspections, and bus management, which includes student behavior, safety procedures, and bus cleanliness. Also, the department serves staff members meals several times during the school year.
Roberts says that Franklin’s staff engagement initiatives have led to increased morale and a drastic decrease in turnover. Employee attendance has also improved.
Ashley Layne, program director of strategy management and organizational change for Atlanta Public Schools, says that Franklin “is intentional about creating a culture where employees are engaged and are operating in their strengths.”
As a statistical measure of the transportation team’s transformation, Franklin cites a culture and engagement survey conducted annually for the district by Gallup. The survey translates into an employee engagement index for each department. Over the past three years, the transportation department’s score on the index has increased from 0.4% to 26%.
Building Trust, Boosting Service
Earning the community’s confidence has been another key task for Franklin at Atlanta Public Schools. He came to the district a few years after a high-profile scandal in which nearly 200 teachers and principals were accused of doctoring students’ scores on standardized tests.
“Trust is a big issue with Atlanta Public Schools. It has been since the scandal,” Franklin says. “Every director is responsible for building trust.”
To that end, Franklin launched an annual leadership meeting with transportation stakeholders, including parents, students, staff, and principals. Here, he presents his department’s key performance data, covering such areas as school bus arrival time, routing, and student discipline.
“Stakeholders have the opportunity to participate and assist in developing new performance targets and establishing goals geared toward successfully transporting children,” Roberts says.
Toward the goal of increasing customer service, Franklin implemented ongoing training to help staff communicate effectively and enhance support for stakeholders.
Another of Franklin’s initiatives, the creation of a transportation call center, has further boosted the department’s communications capacity.
“This was a big initiative that John implemented to assist transportation operations and communication among school personnel, parents, and the transportation department,” says Roberts, who worked on the project as a consultant.
Also on the customer service front, this year Atlanta Public Schools launched a mobile application for parents to get updates on the status of their child’s bus. The app joins other technological advances that have been added under Franklin’s watch, including new field trip software and stop-arm cameras. The cameras, installed on 322 buses, have captured an average of 2,400 stop-arm violations per month.
Another focus for Franklin has been developing more efficient school bus routes. To help in this effort, he hired an operations quality control analyst — a veteran of the shipping container world — who pulls data and looks for ways to make the operation more efficient.
“He’s my number cruncher,” Franklin says.
Meanwhile, the transportation department has made big strides in getting buses running on schedule. When Franklin came to Atlanta Public Schools, the bus on-time percentage was hovering around 70%. As of last year, the department had increased that metric to 94%.
“That’s a massive improvement in a couple of years,” Franklin says.
To achieve that dramatic on-time increase, the department first had to tackle a critical maintenance issue: school bus reliability.
Rebuilding Bus Maintenance
Atlanta Public Schools’ fleet had been experiencing repeated breakdowns, which triggered parent concerns and a local media exposé on the frequency of buses being towed.
Again, Franklin’s approach to the problem started with addressing personnel. He spearheaded an overhaul of the fleet maintenance team, creating new leadership positions and technician positions with stronger skill sets and higher salaries. All of the new positions required ASE school bus and automotive certifications. Some long-term successful technicians were retained.
Roberts says that Franklin has “fine-tuned” the fleet department by hiring more qualified technicians, a new fleet manager, and an operations manager.
On the technical side, one of the key improvement areas has been in the fleet’s diesel particulate filter (DPF) program. The department purchased a DPF baker and blower and has been cyclically changing out filters as part of preventive maintenance service.
The DPF program improvement led to a 61% decrease in Atlanta Public Schools’ number of school buses towed, bringing down the costly tow invoices.
The department has also saved about $70,000 in fuel with improved battery and charging system diagnostics. And with the newer techs’ higher skills sets, they are able to conduct some of the engine rebuilding work that was previously outsourced.
In addition to their technical expertise, the new maintenance crew has exhibited strong teamwork.
“One of the best outcomes of this reorganization has been the esprit de corps and professionalism exhibited by this group,” Franklin says. “They collaborate and coordinate on problem solving mechanical issues, and they have great leaders. … Productive shops are more than just a conglomerate of technicians — it is about leadership, organization, and having the right people committed to [Atlanta Public Schools’] first core value of putting students and schools first.”
Collaborating and Connecting
Having worked in three states, Franklin has taken part in state pupil transportation associations in Texas, Florida, and now Georgia. He is also a member of the National Association for Pupil Transportation and the Council of the Great City Schools.
In Atlanta, Franklin collaborates with other local transportation directors within the Metro Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA). The Metro RESA, which aligns with the Georgia Association for Pupil Transportation’s local chapter, holds monthly meetings to address topics like safety, training, and transporting homeless students across district lines.
“The RESA meetings become an integral part of discussing ideas … in finding ways to support and help other districts,” says Lindstrom, the former Marietta City Schools director, who now serves as general manager of the TransPar Group’s Hawaii office. “John has been an active member since he arrived in Atlanta, and his input and ability to communicate has played a significant role.”
As for Franklin’s impact at Atlanta Public Schools, Roberts notes that the transportation department’s struggles had set it on the path to being outsourced, but Franklin brought the needed knowledge and skills to turn the operation around.
“Atlanta Public Schools’ transportation department has experienced a complete positive overhaul because of John Franklin’s leadership,” Roberts says.
Layne, the district’s change management program director, says that while more work lies ahead in the transportation department’s transformation, Franklin’s efforts thus far have bolstered the district’s reputation for safe and reliable student transportation.
“Atlanta Public Schools is happy to have a leader focused on both the technical and people side of an effective transportation department,” Layne says.