ORANGE, Calif. — After nearly three-and-a-half decades of dedication to pupil transportation in California, Pam McDonald is retiring at the end of the month.
McDonald had actually started out aspiring to be a police officer, studying law enforcement in college, she told School Bus Fleet. In the early days of her career, she often juggled two or three jobs at a time. She coached junior high students in softball, basketball, and volleyball; was a paid call firefighter, and worked at a health club and in concessions at Anaheim Stadium.
One day a co-worker at the health club, who was also a school bus driver, mentioned that Orange Unified School District, where she worked, was hiring, and encouraged McDonald to apply. She completed training and became a substitute school bus driver.
Soon after, McDonald came aboard as a permanent school bus driver, in 1986. She was promoted to dispatcher in 1991 and then to director of transportation in 1995.
“Like many before me, I thought this part-time job would get me through college and then I would proceed with my career aspirations,” McDonald said. “Once I got yellow blood in my veins and my heart, I changed my career.”
To bolster her skills in her newly-chosen livelihood, McDonald enrolled in the School Business Management Certificate program through California State Fullerton and earned her certificate in 2000.
During her over 34-year tenure in the district’s transportation department, McDonald networked and built a plan to get support for her department as well as others in Orange County.
In 2005, she learned that school districts in San Diego County formed an agreement to help one another out when needed. At that time, Orange USD was helping a few other Orange County districts with transportation, but the process needed more streamlining.
“I was constantly taking agreements to the school board for approval,” McDonald recalled.
After getting help from legal services at the Orange County Department of Education, she worked with other Orange County school district transportation leaders and developed an agreement with legal counsel for student transportation services between the county’s school districts.
“We have renewed this agreement for several years,” McDonald said. “I hope it will continue to be renewed.”
McDonald followed up that agreement with one on the purchase of fuel, which is still in place today and increases the buying power and provides a better fuel rate for 12 Orange County school districts.
Meanwhile, her dedication has extended to student transportation far beyond the local level. She has also served on the executive board and as president, twice, for the California Association of School Transportation Officials (CASTO); as Transportation Professional Council State Chair for the California Association of School Business Officials (CASBO) and has been the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s (NAPT’s) Elections Chair since 2012.
Additionally, she has been widely recognized, having been named CASBO’s 2019-2020 Eastern Section Member of the Year, Orange USD’s Administrator of the Year for the 2002-03 school year, and as SBF’s Administrator of the Year in 2015.
Also over the past 30-plus years she has devoted to pupil transportation, McDonald has seen drug and alcohol testing become regulated, seat belts, integrated child safety seats and GPS and cameras added to school buses.
She noted that a significantly higher number of women are being promoted to higher positions since she started.
“In the 1990s, I used to attend director meetings and I would be the only female,” McDonald said. “Now there are several, which I am happy to see.”
She has also seen her share of challenges, in particular the budget, driver shortage, and now the pandemic.
“COVID-19 has been very challenging in trying to figure out how we will get all the students to school with social distancing,” McDonald said. “Bell schedules would need to be changed to transport the same amount of students we have in the past.”
What has been consistently rewarding, however, is providing safe and reliable transportation to the next generations.
“I sometimes run into the parents of students who have aged out and they tell me how important the school bus was for them,” McDonald said. “It makes me smile.”
She advises those who are working their way up in pupil transportation to attend as many conferences and network with as many transportation professionals as they can and to take advantage of the abundance of free online training brought on by COVID-19.
In retirement, McDonald plans to take more trips to the Colorado River, go camping more often in her fifth wheel travel trailer, and travel to other countries and go on more cruises once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
McDonald will be succeeded by Christina Celeste-Russo, the current transportation supervisor for the district. Celeste-Russo also serves as the state treasurer for CASTO.