I would not consider myself a big gambler. I would rather use my money to buy something I will use often or to pay for a good meal.
Despite that, every so often I will play Lotto or walk through the doors of an area casino and toss a few bucks into a slot machine. However, dice are not my game. I don’t want my fate to be decided by two cubes that have different numbers on them and don’t roll smoothly.
Accordingly, one should also never roll the dice with his or her career. So for those of you who are currently school transportation directors and are in a good position but are considering change, there are multiple factors to consider before signing on with your new employer.
For the reader who is a mid-manager, head bus driver, trainer, dispatcher, lead mechanic or other title and is considering becoming a transportation director, my recommendation is to take the plunge to keep your career path on track. Oftentimes, when you are seeking your first directorship, you cannot be choosy; however, the following points should prove educational for you as well.
1. Ask yourself why
In most cases, a transportation director who has worked for the same operation for at least 10 full years will probably retire from that same operation. Rarely do people change jobs when they have something good going on.
Occasionally, a motivator may be moving to a larger district for additional salary or prestige, or to build one’s resume. Sometimes, a sitting director may be motivated to move due to changes in upper management, a tragic event, a change in labor/management relations or a personal situation such as a divorce or loss of a spouse.
The most important step in making a successful job change is to be honest with yourself as to why you want to change and what you hope the change will accomplish. Remember that the basic principle of all of our operations large and small is the same, and if you are hoping things will be better by moving to a school district across town, you may find yourself dealing with some of the same issues you are leaving — only you may lack the years of knowledge you have about your current district, putting you at a disadvantage at your new employer.
2. Google me, baby!
When you are getting ready to apply for a position in a new district, conduct a Google search about the district and the key leaders, such as the superintendent, the assistant superintendent and the board of education.
You are looking for the initial pages of your search to turn up positive fluff pieces about school achievement, awards, community service, etc. If your initial search turns up controversy, scandal, negative issues, or budget or labor relations problems, I strongly recommend you read these articles and make your own decisions about the credibility of the stories.
3. Call me, maybe
Chances are you may not personally know somebody working in the district at which you are considering applying to be transportation director. But if you do, and if you trust him or her, call and say that you are considering applying for the transportation director position.
Ask this person about the operation and the district. Does he or she see any major issues coming down the road, or is there smooth sailing ahead? Keep in mind that this will be one person’s perception, so hopefully you know the person well enough to gauge his or her credibility.
4. Attend a board meeting
In most cases, transportation directors are employed by the board of education but work for the superintendent of schools. Therefore, you will probably have very little interaction with the board of education.
In most districts, the board is responsible for employing a superintendent and developing budget and policy — not micromanaging or handling day-to-day school operations.
With that said, the conduct and professionalism (or lack of professionalism) on the part of the board can set the tone for the culture and behavior of the district and the people it employs and serves.
Attend a board meeting and watch firsthand for yourself how they conduct business. Is there an air of professionalism at the meeting? Do the board members have mutual respect for each other even when they differ on issues? Observe body language for sneers, snickers or eye rolling, all of which are indicators that people conduct themselves less than courteously.
The job of school transportation director is difficult and you cannot please many people, so you will at the very least need supportive and professional board members who will use the superintendent as a buffer between them as a board and transportation issues, ultimately providing quiet support as you go about your tasks.
5. Request documents
My father always told me that when you are being considered for a job, you should be humble, be respectful, avoid discussing money and benefits too early, and not ask too many questions. After all, they are considering hiring you, and not the other way around.
I do agree with that philosophy when you are interviewing for your first gig as a school transportation director. However, when you are in a good place and are simply seeking to move to a larger operation, reduce your commute, join a colleague or obtain a better salary, be careful. You are in a position to carefully consider your move, and your move may have significant impacts on you and your family.
So, in my opinion, you have the right to tread carefully. Ask to see documents such as budgets, the contract with the driver union (if there is one) and job descriptions of subordinate staff. Also, in a union environment, request copies of grievances for the past 12 months.
Reviewing this information will most assuredly answer many questions for you as to whether you should move forward in the interview process or run back to your office.
6. Listen for "timber!"
As you may know, “timber” is what you yell when you are going to make the last cut before a giant tree comes crashing down on top of everything in its path.
Before making a job change, you need to evaluate the operation’s bus fleet. This is where the rubber meets the road. The vehicle fleet is your tool to transport students safely and meet daily service demand.
If the district you are considering working for has had a poor fleet management plan or has not purchased buses for a few years, make sure they yell “timber” as you come for your interview so you know what you are facing. They may know they have an issue, and if they are recruiting you to “fix” the issue, make sure you have their word that they will be making bus purchases.
One year down the road, they cannot legitimately blame you for the bus fleet problems that took 10 years or more to develop. However, you and your employer can be in for a bumpy ride if bus replacement does not take place and if you go into a situation that has not taken fleet management seriously.
7. Hang out
If the captain is going to hand you the wheel of the ship, make sure as you accept it that you don’t look up just as the ship hits a big iceberg.
By taking a job as school transportation director, you are signing on for a multi-year commitment. You should spend a day or so at the operation and tour the facility.
Note any facility, operational or repair shop issues and strongly ponder how they may impact or impede your ability to manage.
You should also watch the operation run for a day or so, and visit school sites to observe how buses arrive for both the a.m. and p.m. routes. This will help you to gauge how serious the driver staff is about safety and professional image.
Despite a challenging economy, I believe that over the next few years a number of retirements will take place, and there will be school transportation director jobs opening up.
Many of you will eye those jobs, but move carefully. It’s often better to remain with the quirky little operation you know than to move to the possible spinning cyclone you could inherit.
Michael P. Dallessandro is transportation director at Niagara Wheatfield Central School District in Niagara Falls, N.Y. He is the author of numerous articles and an editorial advisory board member for SCHOOL BUS FLEET. He welcomes comments and feedback at MPDBUS1@aol.com.