At Bethlehem Central School District (BCSD) in Delmar, N.Y., Director of Transportation Alfred Karam is known as the “Numbers Man,” according to Cindy Jurewicz, who is assistant director of transportation.
“We call Al the ‘Numbers Man’ because of his penchant for wanting to learn and to improve every aspect of our department … by embracing and utilizing KPIs [key performance indicators],” she explains.
This businesslike approach to pupil transportation, while also focusing on safe student transportation, has paid off: The transportation department has reportedly come in under budget for the past five years, and the team was able to reduce its overall transportation budget by about $900,000 for the 2012-13 school year.
Karam says he has tracked close to 20 KPIs since he became director of transportation in 2002 (he was previously the assistant director of transportation). The KPIs cover everything from out-of-service rates to the cost per bus, per student and per mile, to labor hours from year to year.
This internal benchmarking enables the team to see how the department is doing, and they can then take steps for any necessary improvements.
Jurewicz and Karam say that in terms of routing, they keep daily data on planned versus actual ridership, and in analyzing the data annually, they can determine if they can put more students on buses. They have been able to consolidate their routes from 111 to 86. This also led to a reduction in labor by about 137 hours.
In addition, the department has gone from having more than 19% of its buses out of service in 2000 to just 1% for the 2012-13 school year.
Karam has brought his knowledge on KPIs and other topics to his colleagues within New York as well as nationally as a member of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation (NYAPT) and the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT). He has served on NAPT’s subcommittee on KPIs.
Peter Mannella, executive director of NYAPT, says that Karam has led the charge on KPIs since he started in the industry, and that Karam was working on collecting data associated with KPIs before many other pupil transportation officials in the state.
“He’s been an advocate for creating efficiencies without compromising safety, and I think that’s a balance he’s struck,” Mannella says. “He’s very detail oriented and disciplined about it.”
In teaching classes on KPIs for NYAPT, Karam says he tries to make the information easy for attendees to understand.
“Most of our colleagues may be afraid to delve into that game [utilizing KPIs] because they think it’s too complicated, so I try to make a connection between KPIs and what they do on a daily basis,” he says.
For his contributions at the local, state and national levels, SCHOOL BUS FLEET named Karam its 2013 Administrator of the Year. He became the 40th pupil transportation leader to receive the award, which was presented to him at the NAPT awards banquet in Grand Rapids, Mich., in October.
Marine Corps to pupil transportation
Karam became involved in yellow bus transportation in 2000 when he joined BCSD after a 25-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps.
He says that his work in the Marine Corps prepared him well for his jobs at BCSD, and he has applied a lot of what he learned to the school district’s transportation department. Utilizing KPIs and total quality management practices is one example.
“One of my goals as I neared my exit from the Marine Corps was to get into the same line of work: dealing with people and dealing with transportation since transportation logistics was my occupational specialty,” he explains. “It’s all the same: how you lead people, manage resources, and your approach to training. The only thing I had to do when I got into this business was become certified in accordance with the state for a school bus driver instructor.”
Karam also learned a lot about leadership in the Marine Corps. He says he has held leadership positions since 1976, and he believes in sharing the knowledge and resources he has access to with the rest of his staff.
“For me, the higher you go, the more power you have to help those you are leading and managing,” Karam says. “I’m here to support my supervisors, mechanics, office staff, bus attendants and bus drivers.”
Jurewicz speaks to this and what it means for the rest of the staff.
“When Al talks about good leadership, he always expresses to everyone in the department that it starts from the bottom up,” she explains. “In other words, he gives us the tools and his confidence, reassurance and guidance for us to grow.”
Karam’s faith in his staff and their abilities to assist him in running the transportation department is apparent when he talks about balancing his responsibilities. He has taken on the tasks that were previously held by the assistant fleet maintenance supervisor, which requires him to spend about 70% of his workdays addressing vehicle maintenance.
“When I’m engaged in the maintenance side of things, I have full confidence that the routing and operations side is being looked after,” he says.
He adds that what has helped him take on this maintenance workload is not only having experience in maintenance management — which he obtained during his time in the Marine Corps — but having an open line of communication and a good working relationship with his technicians.
Jurewicz says that Karam has long had a strong working relationship with his technicians because he was consistently out in the shop keeping abreast of their work and ensuring that things were running smoothly.
Karam’s response upon learning that he was the 2013 recipient of the SBF Administrator of the Year award also says a lot about his attitude toward his team.
“When I told him he won the award,” Jurewicz notes, “he said, ‘No, it’s not me, it’s all of us.’”
Mannella says Karam’s emphasis on teamwork is one of his defining characteristics, and this has earned him the respect of his colleagues within BCSD and beyond.
“He said in the NAPT awards presentation that it [winning the award] wasn’t about him,” Mannella says. “I’ve heard him say that in his facility — that it’s a team effort, and he just happens to be the supervisor. His approach is, ‘I’m not asking my employees to do anything that I’m not doing as well.’ That’s very ‘old school,’ but it’s important. People have a lot of respect for him in New York, and there’s affection for him because he’s out there doing what his employees do and learning what they learn. I find him to be very inspiring as a leader.”