When Jim Beekman took the reins of Orange County Public Schools’ transportation department in 2010, he “inherited some issues,” as he puts it.
To save money in routing, the Orlando, Florida-based district had recently flipped high school and middle school bell times, but the change didn’t go over smoothly.
“It was rolled out with not much notification, and it was really disruptive to the community,” Beekman says. “It prompted a lot of bad media, and some board members were very upset with the process.”
In the wake of that fiasco, an outside firm was brought in to audit the district’s transportation department — which runs one of the nation’s largest public school bus fleets. The audit identified a number of areas for potential improvement.
As Beekman took on the role of senior director of transportation services for Orange County, “I inherited some issues and a lot of recommendations sitting on the table,” he says. “But I also came into an awesome group of folks that wanted to do the job right.”
That spirit of championing and supporting his staff members helped Beekman galvanize the department and implement numerous improvements. The results included increased efficiency, multi-million-dollar savings and high staff morale.
For his efforts to effect positive changes in school transportation throughout his career, School Bus Fleet named Beekman its 2014 Administrator of the Year. He became the 41st pupil transportation leader to receive the award, which was presented at the National Association for Pupil Transportation Summit in Kansas City, Missouri, in November.
‘Data that makes a difference’
One of Beekman’s primary tools for driving change in the Orange County Public Schools transportation department was key performance indicators (KPIs).
The department, which runs about 903 route buses and transports 72,000 students daily, began tracking items like bus on-time arrival, idling, average bus occupancy, road-call rate and staff overtime. The data were used to create scorecards for the various sections of transportation, such as routing and fleet maintenance. Also, Beekman compared the department’s KPIs to data from the Council of Great City Schools and other industry standards.
Bill Wen, a senior administrator in the Orange County transportation department, says that in implementing departmental scorecards and monitoring performance, Beekman “helped managers understand the process and take the data to front-line classified employees to show how their efforts contribute to the success of student achievement.”
Beekman says that while the department tracks a wide range of KPIs, it’s important to subject them to the question “So what?” In other words, does tracking a given area have the potential to increase efficiency, to free up more money for the classroom, etc.?
“Sometimes we’re inundated with data, but we really just want to focus on the data that makes a difference,” he says.
Focus on life-cycle costs
Another of Beekman’s initiatives to increase efficiency and save money targeted school bus purchasing. Florida uses a school bus menu bidding program, and Beekman developed a system to evaluate the options on that menu, with a particular focus on fuel economy and other factors that could reduce the cost of ownership over the life of the bus.
Rather than focusing solely on the purchase price, “What we shared with the school board is that it’s the cost at year 10 [that’s more important], because we’re on a 10-year replacement cycle,” Beekman says. “We incorporated warranty costs, towing costs — those things that would be life-cycle costs — and projected that out for 10 years.”
Charlie Hood, who was the Florida state director of pupil transportation during most of Beekman’s tenure at Orange County, notes that Beekman’s approach to the state menu bid “identified the buses most likely to provide Orange County low life-cycle cost for the district and taxpayers.”
[PAGEBREAK] Millions in savings
The transportation changes that Beekman spearheaded at Orange County yielded impressive savings.
For example, in the 2012-13 school year, the transportation department measured 100% of its route buses for idling, which resulted in reducing idling time from 520.7 hours per school day to 442.5 hours.
The anti-idling initiative, along with utilizing biodiesel and purchasing more fuel-efficient buses, led to an overall reduction of 151,788 gallons of diesel fuel in the 2012-13 school year. The economic benefit was a fuel cost avoidance of $538,847, and the environmental benefit was a reduction of 1,503 metric tons of carbon matter output.
In the 2011-12 school year, Orange County implemented a number of cost-cutting actions that had been recommended in consulting firm TransPar Group’s audit. Those actions — which included routing changes, eliminating some positions and reducing the number of surplus buses — yielded total cost savings of $6.5 million, out of a total budget of $59,224,673.
In one component of that cost-cutting plan, the district consolidated bus routes and stops and made map improvements for more efficient routing. As a result, 44 routes were cut from the previous year, saving $1.9 million.
Demanding, but supportive
Beekman is quick to share the credit for Orange County’s transportation improvements with his staff: “It was a ‘we’ effort,” he says.
He also notes that he had essential support from his superiors, such as chief operating officer Michael Eugene, who Beekman says was “very systematic about getting the changes in place.”
As a manager, Beekman says that he tries to keep a light atmosphere in the office while maintaining high expectations of his people.
“I can be very demanding, but I’m never in a bad mood,” he says. “I have fun in the office.”
Many of Beekman’s staff members point to his strong leadership skills and his commitment to helping them in their professional — and sometimes personal — needs.
“I’ve seen him hand an envelope with money out of his own pocket to an employee that was mistakenly shorted on a paycheck and needed to pay bills,” says Faye Bartell Barrett, a senior administrator in the Orange County transportation department. Also, “He bought an employee glasses because they did not have the money and had to have them to drive the bus. He has been there for employees and co-workers through all kinds of hardships.”
From mechanic to manager
Beekman has more than 30 years of experience in the pupil transportation industry. He started in 1983 as a diesel mechanic for the School District of Osceola County (Fla.).
At the time, he was working on a degree in mechanical engineering and didn’t expect to carve out a long-term career in the school bus business. But he soon got hooked and became a “school bus junkie,” as he puts it.
Beekman moved up the ranks at Osceola, eventually becoming director of transportation. He also got involved in the Florida Association for Pupil Transportation, working on various committees and serving a term as president.
“I love transportation folks because they’re willing to share and to work with each other,” he says of his colleagues in the association.
On to a new challenge
In October, Beekman left Orange County Public Schools to take on a new challenge. He was recruited by Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools to serve as the district’s new general manager of transportation.
The district has had its share of difficulties recently. Hillsborough transportation — which runs another of the largest public school bus operations in the U.S., with about 948 route buses — made headlines earlier this year for a flurry of issues, such as staff turmoil and an aging fleet.
However, even before bringing Beekman on board, the district had begun working on a multifaceted plan to make improvements in the department based on input from a consultant and its own employees.
Beekman said that he initially wasn’t interested in the job at Hillsborough, but when he eventually agreed to go and take a look at the district, he was intrigued by what he saw. For example, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia has been meeting with Hillsborough’s school bus drivers on a monthly basis to solicit their feedback, and the school board recently approved the purchase of 100 new buses to replace old models in the fleet.
“This is probably the piece that convinced me to come [to Hillsborough]: There have been significant issues here, but the superintendent and deputy superintendent are committed to getting them fixed,” Beekman says. “It’s a phenomenal group of leaders here.”