In this new series, we pose five pertinent questions to a notable person in pupil transportation. Our first discussion is with Keith Henry, director of transportation for Lee’s Summit (Mo.) R-7 School District. Henry is also in the final year of his term as president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT).
1. Driver shortage is a widespread challenge in the industry. Are you seeing that in your area? If so, how have you dealt with it?
In the Kansas City area, we are experiencing the same challenges as the rest of the country. Some districts are finding drivers, some are not, even when they seem to be doing the same things. In my district we are getting by, though that can change at a blink of an eye it seems. I was very persuaded by the SBF article about how Mike Shields and his team in Oregon [Salem-Keizer Public Schools] are approaching it — thinking more broadly and creatively. For me, that includes factoring in the many societal changes that may be having an impact. While money is always important in any job situation, there may be other things in play, especially as the economy gets better and applicants see greener pastures elsewhere, with fewer hoops to jump through. Driving a school bus is not just about driving anymore — a lot is expected of drivers, and over time the tasks and responsibilities add up.
2. What do you see as some other top issues for school transportation in 2017?
Changes in the political overlay in Washington, D.C., don’t usually impact pupil transportation too dramatically since our operations are local. However, the 2016 presidential election was different, and there may be some significant shifts made in federal programs as a result. For example, we are affected to varying degrees by the departments of Transportation (regulatory and other safety programs), Education (things like bullying, school choice, and the impact of school start times), Health and Human Services (the transportation of students with special needs or disabilities), Homeland Security (terrorism prevention), and the Environmental ProtectionAgency (fuel economy and tailpipe emissions). New leadership and direction at these cabinet-level agencies may have an impact on the yellow school bus industry, but it’s too early to tell what changes are in store.
In addition, the crash last year in Chattanooga [Tennessee] has changed the landscape. We are now having a very different discussion with policymakers at the national level about school bus safety. There is already — and will likely be a lot more — federal legislation introduced on various school bus safety topics. An omnibus type bill was introduced in December, and I expect it to be the catalyst for a long overdue discussion in Congress.
We would also like Congress to make the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) answer directly the question, “Why does my child’s school bus not have seat belts?” In NAPT’s view, NHTSA needs to tell the American people that the required cost-benefit arithmetic does not justify a requirement for belts, and not pass the buck to us to answer.
3. NAPT recently launched a new data-driven transportation platform, Apollo. How has it been received, and how are school districts making use of it so far?
The foundation for Apollo was NAPT’s Data Driven Decision-making (3D) project, which began under the leadership of the late, great Don Carnahan. Don was a big believer in the power of data, and the current board is, too. We realized in March of last year that we were not going to finish the 3D project unless we devoted full-time energy and attention on it, so we asked Mike Martin to put aside almost all of the other activities he was actively involved in and take personal control of the 3D project. I’m happy to report that in just seven months, he completed the legal framework, rebuilt the financial infrastructure, developed and beta-tested the product, and developed the marketing and promotional plan. We did a soft launch at our conference last year and received really, really positive feedback.
At the risk of belaboring this topic, our market research showed there is tremendous need for a technology-driven process for analyzing data and presenting actionable information to executives, managers, and other end users so they can make more informed business decisions.
NAPT’s Apollo is configured to accommodate the unique needs of school transportation service providers. With multiple functions, like fully searchable user profiles; dashboard displays; data analytics capability; user-to-user data comparisons; instant messaging; networking and community building; an
online project center; and numeric/currency conversion, all accessible through a single interface, you can generate reports and manage routine tasks with a few clicks of your mouse. Suffice it to say, we are very excited about this project.
"We encouraged NHTSA to apply the same approaches they used ... to increase passenger car safety belt use and discourage drunk driving to develop a national campaign about the dangers of illegally passing a stopped school bus."
Keith Henry, president
National Association for Pupil Transportation
4. In December, NHTSA held a meeting focused on safety outside of school buses. What do you see as the key takeaways from that meeting?
Good meeting. We encouraged NHTSA to apply the same approaches they used successfully to increase passenger car safety belt use and discourage drunk driving to develop a national campaign
about the dangers of illegally passing a stopped school bus. NHTSA was very receptive and committed to taking action. We look forward to working with them to develop a much-needed effort, but here is a case where the new [NHTSA] administrator is going to have to buy into this. We expect to meet with her/him when on board, and it will be something we and our other industry partners will encourage.
5. What do you like most about working in pupil transportation?
Working in pupil transportation is one of the “hidden gems” of a career. Most people, myself included, never imagined this would be their path. I am glad I chose it, though sometimes I wonder if it chose me. Honestly, I just love what I do.
The primary reason I love it is because of the people I get to work with each day; they are amazing. Their dedication to duty, compassion for kids, and generosity — both in terms of time and knowledge — are second to none. On top of that, my co-workers and I get to help kids; kids are what we are all about. Someone on my team makes a positive impact in a child’s life each and every day. How cool is that?