As section chief of transportation services for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, a title he’s held for more than 10 years, Derek Graham is proud of the difference that his work has made in the lives of North Carolina’s students.

Graham’s department oversees pupil transportation at the state level for 115 school systems — administering funding; managing fleet inspection, maintenance and replacement; supporting the statewide computerized routing system; and keeping the lines of communication open.

His tireless effort and determination, along with the countless contributions he’s made both to the transportation industry in North Carolina and on a national scale, make Graham not only a fine leader but also SCHOOL BUS FLEET’s 2006 Administrator of the Year.

Graham received the annual award at the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s annual conference in Kansas City, Mo., in early November. He was the 33rd recipient of the award.

Beyond the status quo
Colleagues agree that Graham’s contributions have been invaluable. “He’s always interested in trying to improve transportation in the state of North Carolina,” says Scott Denton, executive director of transportation services for Durham Public Schools. “He’s a guy who’s not afraid to step out there and take a chance on something and look at some new technologies and some new systems that would make us more effective, make us better.”

Denton has known Graham for more than eight years, and worked with him at the North Carolina Pupil Transportation Association (NCPTA). During Denton’s tenure as NCPTA president three years ago, Graham helped him put together the state’s first school bus inspection competition. Now, the state winner goes on to compete nationally.

Graham believes that one of the most relevant pupil transportation issues continues to be safety on school buses. To that end, he has helped to set up pilot programs to reduce the number of illegal pass-bys, including the testing of a camera system on buses that captures images of offending motorists.

Graham’s office also coordinated a pilot project in which 13 large school buses were outfitted with three-point belt systems. He has since presented data on the usage of the restraint systems and the response of drivers and administrators on their efficacy.

TIMS high on list
Graham is perhaps most widely recognized for the many years of work he dedicated to North Carolina’s Transportation Information Management System (TIMS), a statewide transportation efficiency project he considers to be his most significant career accomplishment to date.

Before becoming state director, Graham worked as project manager in developing and implementing TIMS, a computerized routing and scheduling program, to optimize school bus routes across North Carolina.

While the first two districts signed on to use TIMS in 1986, it was six years before the state required all 115 districts to use the same routing and planning system.

Currently the only transportation program of its kind to be adopted statewide, TIMS allows the Department of Public Instruction to gather data at the state level quickly and easily, including how far each student lives from his school and student ride times.

“Derek had the vision for our state. He saw the potential savings and efficiency of this software,” says Liz McGowan, executive director of transportation services at Cumberland County Schools. “Because of Derek’s vision, use of the software became a state mandate for all counties.”

The program has evolved over the years. Graham says the uses for TIMS now extend beyond the initial concept. “Districts can use it for even more things, like vehicle location systems and GPS, because they already have maps and bus routes that are automated,” he says.

TIMS software and support are provided to each district for free. And while many states use the software provider for support, TIMS has contracts with the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and North Carolina State University, Graham’s alma mater.

Past, present and future
Graham found his way into the student transportation industry somewhat by chance while attending graduate school at North Carolina State University. An operations research major, he took a summer job assisting a professor with a project that explored the possibilities for computerized routing and scheduling of school buses. His work that summer led to a master’s thesis on pupil transportation and then a job with the University of North Carolina’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education.

While Graham never planned a career in pupil transportation, it seems more fate than accident, given his serious commitment and dedication to the industry.

As evidence of his dedication, he recently took over the presidency of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) from Ohio’s Pete Japikse. The two-year term will test his organizational and time-management skills, but he’s grateful for the opportunity. He’s also quick to acknowledge that it would not have been possible for him to take on the added responsibility without the tremendous support he receives from his transportation staff. “There are a lot of really good people in this business that care about what they’re doing and know that what we’re doing is really being a service to kids,” says Graham.

However easy Graham makes his job appear, balancing the political and operational issues of his position can be difficult. “Oftentimes he is placed in an awkward position of responding to complaints and frustration from transportation officials across the state and still maintaining a politically neutral perspective,” says Rhonda Fleming, operations manager for transportation for the Winston-Salem and Forsyth County Schools. “He does an excellent job acting as a facilitator between various state agencies.”

Despite his many commitments, Graham balances his priorities seamlessly. He is active in his church — having participated in two mission trips to Honduras — and still goes to the bus stop every morning with one of his two children.