RALEIGH, N.C. — Many leaders in pupil transportation started their career as a school bus driver or a mechanic. Derek Graham, who will soon step down after more than 20 years as North Carolina’s state director, began as a computer whiz.
After earning a master’s degree with a thesis on school bus scheduling at North Carolina State University in 1984, Graham worked on early research on computerized routing and scheduling of school buses. The success of that project, conducted by the university’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education, led to statewide implementation of the Transportation Information Management System (TIMS).
By September 1992, all school districts in North Carolina had begun using TIMS, which helped them boost transportation efficiency and assess the quality of their service.
“That came along at about the same time as our funding formula, which has an incentive for districts to be efficient,” Graham told SBF in an interview on Monday. “Just seeing districts work really hard at … being good stewards of tax dollars is pretty satisfying.”
Graham served as the TIMS project manager from 1988 to 1993, and then as software support manager for the next two years. In 1995, he was appointed to the position that would define his career for the next two decades: North Carolina’s state director of pupil transportation. Initially, there was a steep learning curve on the more technical aspects of yellow buses.
“There’s not many state directors that have come in the door from computerized routing,” Graham said. “What that meant was I had a lot to learn when I came into this position: about bus specs, bus inspections … the whole other side of the business.”
Along with leading North Carolina’s pupil transportation system in his role at the state Department of Public Instruction, Graham became heavily involved in industry associations. He served on the board of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) for eight years, including a term as president from 2006 to 2008.
While serving as president-elect and then president of NASDPTS, Graham was involved in the 2006 formation of the American School Bus Council (ASBC), along with the other national organizations — the National Association for Pupil Transportation and the National School Transportation Association — and the major school bus OEMs.
“Sitting around that table at ASBC, it doesn’t take long to figure out that everybody really is after the same thing: getting kids to and from school safely,” Graham said.
As a state director, Graham has championed ASBC's signature program, Love the Bus, encouraging many North Carolina districts to celebrate school bus safety and their drivers as part of the annual campaign held around Valentine's Day. Graham has also been a key player in efforts to curb stop-arm running and to test new technology for school buses, including stop-arm cameras.
In 2006, Graham was named School Bus Fleet's Administrator of the Year.
On Saturday, Graham announced that he will retire as North Carolina’s state director at the end of February. After that, he plans to stay involved in the industry, most likely as a consultant. Meanwhile, Graham said that his division director at the Department of Public Instruction would work to name the next state director.
Graham told SBF that he has thoroughly enjoyed contributing to pupil transportation and working with the dedicated people in the industry, “whether it’s state directors or district folks or vendors.” He illustrated that point in an email to colleagues in which he announced his retirement.
“I have gone home every day knowing that I work with a team that is contributing to something important — providing safe and efficient transportation for 800,000 kids each day,” Graham wrote, “many of whom would have no way to get an education without us.”