Whether it’s saving money on fuel or keeping an important event afloat, Pam McDonald knows how to make it happen: partnerships.
Those partnerships might be with her colleagues at other school districts or with school bus industry suppliers. In either case, McDonald, who is the director of transportation and mechanical services at Orange (Calif.) Unified School District (USD), has built vital connections that have helped strengthen the pupil transportation community.
“Not only does she mentor others to grow in the industry, she has created and implemented new programs and ideas,” says Ellen Johnson, transportation manager at Orange USD. “Pam’s passion and commitment to her service to students is one we can all admire.”
For her role as a unifying force in the industry, her many contributions to state and national associations, and her continual efforts to run a safe and efficient operation, McDonald has been named School Bus Fleet’s 2015 Administrator of the Year.
SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon presented the award to McDonald at the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) Summit in Richmond, Virginia, in November.
Taking the wheel
While McDonald has long been a leader in the school bus industry, she got her start behind the wheel. As a 19-year-old, she began working as a school bus driver at Orange USD while attending community college in 1986.
McDonald’s plan was to become a police officer, but the opportunities at Orange USD — and a newfound passion for pupil transportation — soon had her hooked.
“You start bleeding yellow, and then you can’t get it out of your system,” McDonald says.
After about five years as a driver, McDonald landed a job in the dispatch office. From there, she kept getting promoted, eventually ending up in the director’s chair.
Still, her early years as director weren’t exactly smooth sailing. In 1996, the Orange USD board decided to contract out the district’s transportation service, which meant laying off everyone in the department except for McDonald, Johnson and two other staff members.
When the contractor backed out, the district had to recall most of its drivers. Then, in 1997, the board opted to split the school bus service, keeping regular-education transportation in-house while contracting out special-needs transportation.
The next challenge came in 2001. With the special-needs contract set to expire in June of that year, the Orange USD board announced in April that they had decided to bring all of the transportation service back in-house. That opened up a sizable hole in staffing with not much time to fill it.
“I’m thinking, how are we going to get 50 buses and 50 drivers?” McDonald recalls.
The solution for driver recruitment was a hiring fair, an idea that McDonald picked up from Rick Feinstein, then transportation manager at Colton (Calif.) Joint USD and a mentor to McDonald.
On a Saturday, the Orange USD team “threw a big party” at the bus yard, as McDonald puts it. Prospective drivers accrued points for going through various steps — filling out an application, taking a driving test, interviewing with McDonald and Johnson, etc.
Applicants who scored enough points were sent directly to human resources personnel who were on hand to hire them. The day-long event drew scores of prospective drivers — many more than the district needed to fill its roster.
“We sent more ‘no’ letters than ‘yes’ that day,” McDonald says.
Today, McDonald oversees a team of 150 employees and a fleet of 105 school buses, transporting some 30,000 students daily in the heart of Southern California’s Orange County.
Meanwhile, McDonald has volunteered her spare time to contribute to state and national associations, and she has collaborated with her counterparts at other districts to find new ways to boost efficiency and save money.
Within Orange County, McDonald was instrumental in the creation of countywide mutual service agreements that allow neighboring school districts to work together by transporting each other’s students when needed and by purchasing fuel in bulk.
“It gives us more buying power, so we get a better rate,” she says.
McDonald has served in numerous leadership roles in the California Association of School Transportation Officials (CASTO), including a term as president that began in 2009. During that time, with the recession in full swing, “school districts weren’t sending anybody to conferences,” McDonald says.
The lack of financial resources led CASTO to cancel its highly regarded School Transportation Business Management Forum in 2009, but then McDonald tapped into her strong relationships with industry suppliers to bring the event back the following year. The suppliers’ sponsorships enabled CASTO members to attend without having to pay a registration fee, which had previously been around $300.
On the national scene, McDonald has chaired NAPT’s elections committee for the past four years, and she served as a delegate for the past two editions of the National Congress on School Transportation.
McDonald is also known for her willingness to test new products — and to give the suppliers her honest feedback.
For example, when Zonar was just breaking into the school bus market, Orange USD was the first operation in California to implement the company’s electronic vehicle inspection technology. McDonald and her team helped Zonar hone the product, which is now widely used throughout the pupil transportation industry.
Orange USD was also an early adopter of digital video surveillance systems from 247Security. The district’s latest addition to its fleet is back-up cameras.
“We try to get our buses equipped with the newest technology,” McDonald says.
Orange USD has also been applying for and receiving grants to replace its older diesel buses with new compressed natural gas models.
McDonald has opened up her operation to colleagues who are interested in coming to see the technology on their buses, how their dispatch office operates, or how they handle parent pay for transportation, as a few examples.
She also gladly shares her insights with colleagues who call her with questions, and she gives guidance to those who are new to the industry.
“I like to mentor people, because there are a lot of people I’ve gone to over the years,” McDonald says. “I feel like I’m paying it back.”