As school budgets continue to shrink, school districts are seeking ways to make budget reductions that have a limited impact on educational and extracurricular programs for students. At the same time, citizens who are struggling to keep their own jobs in the private sector or retirees on fixed incomes are calling for reductions in administrative positions that they often view as having better salaries and benefits than the average person working in the private sector today.
As a result, some districts have utilized shared positions where two districts share one employee, such as a business administrator or facilities director. There are a handful of districts that view a supervisor or director of transportation as another position that can be shared, providing potential savings. While this is possible, districts should tread carefully, as there are risks.
Negative impact on safety?
School transportation via the iconic and easily identifiable yellow bus has a great safety record across our nation. Our industry’s safety record has been achieved through a number of improvements, including driver training, better technology, increasingly safer vehicles and a commitment by both contract carriers and school district-owned operations to viewing transportation managers as professionals.
These professionals are vital to our school transportation program’s current and future success, and the industry’s improvements have come all or in part from full-time, onsite management of a transportation program. When you share a critical employee whose job is to promote safety and provide day-to-day department stability and employee accountability, you basically take two full-time positions and convert them to two part-time positions held by the same person.
There is potential risk to our industry’s record in reversing any of the key components that have been proven to make a difference in safety and reduce accidents.
The financial savings
While some might argue that the immediate savings from a shared transportation director are minimal, especially in areas of our country that offer state transportation aid funding for management and staffing of a district’s pupil transportation program, clearly you will reduce some portion of an annual salary since you are combining a position and one director will no longer be present.
The real savings, though, will lie in the benefit package, conference budget, technology items and other day-to-day things you would have provided to the director who is no longer at one of the two districts. Of course, additional savings could come from the eventual sharing of purchasing, identical bus specifications, single parts inventories and a future joint transportation facility, all of which over a period of years a shared director can evaluate and facilitate.
Districts should border each other
Shared facilities directors can often assign the day’s work for both districts via e-mails or the telephone while sitting in one office, as can a school business official who is working on a computer doing budget development for two districts.
Transportation departments, however, are constantly in motion. Drivers often need answers to questions while traveling at 45 mph. A shared transportation director cannot simply assign work for the day and forget it. There will be the need for constant travel back and forth between the two districts, so if the districts sharing the director are not directly next to each other, the travel time will be lost office time, and in some cases chargeable personal auto mileage.
A shared transportation director position also works best when two neighboring large districts share the director, or when one large fleet and a neighboring small fleet share the director. The reason for this is that a shared transportation director cannot be expected to do every task, including dispatching, routing, safety, HR, shop management, government compliance, etc.
Each school district should have at least one dependable and competent full-time person in a support title, such as a head bus driver or dispatcher with some basic decision-making authority who can steer the ship on a day-to-day basis while the shared director does other tasks for each district, such as handling sensitive parent issues, personnel matters and budget with the support person(s) reporting in each day. General operational, clerical and dispatching tasks cannot be done by a shared director who will not be in the office every day or who needs to be able to leave District A at a moment’s notice when something happens in District B.
Operations and support structures should be healthy
School districts that are in need of significant improvements in transportation infrastructure, labor relations/personnel, political matters or budget, or those that desperately need bus fleet improvements, should shy away from using a shared director. Districts should get their “houses in order” first, because a shared director may not have the time to dedicate to those major projects up front without one of the districts suffering in some form.
If there are some issues that exist, expect them to get worse before they get better and prepare for some rough seas. The existing staff will have the advantage of local knowledge and past practice over the new director, and your ship will not right itself until the shared director has had enough time in the boss’ seat to become part of and help create what will be the new “past practice” or current operating procedure.
Two directors retired: time to share?
One may think that the best time to share a transportation director between two operations is when both districts are in need of a new director due to a retirement or another type of departure. Unless you are prepared to provide a significant time frame and considerable patience and support while your new shared director manages the learning curve of two operations and their idiosyncrasies, you should reconsider a shared director. It takes a new transportation director about one year to learn a fully functioning operation if he or she is full time at one location. If learning two operations at the same time, it may take your new person a minimum of one and a half years.
The best plan is to tap a neighboring, experienced director with at least 10 years’ experience at his or her current district. He or she will be your ideal candidate because the director’s current district can almost run on auto pilot while he or she is learning the other district.
It takes time to work
Let’s face it: “Shared” means not present on some days or at certain times. Each fleet or district considering sharing an employee should carefully evaluate the level of commitment to this concept and evaluate rank and file support prior to going down this road. The existing staff must be supportive of the shared concept and the new shared director. Nobody should bellyache that they are doing all of the work because the shared director isn’t there, and nobody should be vying for the job by intentionally working to ensure the shared director fails.
Both sides should give the new shared director time to build relationships in the new operations and evaluate long-term goals. If you expect the shared director to make early changes or force new procedures on existing staff, you may see significant pushback against the “outsider.”
Provide tools and support for the director
Some days, your new shared director is going to be pulled in seven or more directions. As his or her immediate supervisor or school superintendent, make sure to provide the director with the tools to do the job as seamlessly as possible.
If the director struggles with getting the basics, such as computers, e-mail, a place to sit down and work, or even a desk, take the lead and make it happen. Help in managing his or her stress, and run interference for the director and make sure your board of education and other administrators support the director, because you have the local knowledge that he or she is trying to obtain.
Prepare yourself and other administrators as well. There are going to be sacrifices and adjustments with a shared director of transportation, especially when your districts or operations have been used to having one person at their fingertips every day. Lastly, approve leave for vacation and health needs as much as reasonably possible for your shared director. Good health and low stress can help ensure your shared program has long-term success.
Michael Dallessandro is supervisor of transportation at Livonia (N.Y.) Central School District and an SBF editorial advisory board member. He can be reached at MPDBUS1@aol.com.