Keeping in line with family tradition, it was only right that Denille Girardat, the president of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association and part-owner of a school bus company, found her way back to the world of pupil transportation. She began cleaning and sweeping buses for her family-owned transportation business, Girardat LP, in the early part of her career and later pivoted to a long-time role in retail. After much success, she went back to her school bus roots, increasing her involvement in the industry, heading up the family business, and becoming a member — and later president — of the PSBA.
In this interview with School Bus Fleet, Girardat talks about leading the state association through the challenging times of the pandemic, members’ heightened concerns about driver shortage and illegal passing, and the important role school bus drivers have in serving as the cornerstone of the education industry.
1. How did you get your start in pupil transportation? Had you worked in another industry before?
I am the active partner of our third-generation, family-owned transportation business, Girardat LP. My grandfather started our family business with one bus in 1949. We currently operate approximately 45 buses servicing Crawford Central School District and Northwest Tri-County Intermediate Unit 5. I recall my first responsibilities within the family business was sweeping the buses during the weekends and cleaning the buses in the summer.
It was very important to my parents that I pursue my career choice. I am a proud graduate of Johnson and Wales University located in Providence, Rhode Island. I earned my Bachelor’s degrees in Fashion/Retail Management and Marketing as well as my Associate’s degree in Fashion Merchandising and Retailing. Following college, I had a successful 14-year career in the retail field with Nordstrom and Target before returning back to the family business.
2. What are some of your responsibilities as president of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association?
It is with tremendous respect, heartfelt gratitude, and courage that I follow in the previous presidents’ footsteps. The Girardats have been longtime members of PSBA and my father, Harold Girardat, was the 13th PSBA president. I am proud to be the 20th PSBA president.
It has been an unusual time to be the PSBA president. By leaning on our past presidents, my officers, and our executive director, my task has been to lead our association through the pandemic with an open mind as decisions were made for our members that have not been the norm. Ultimately, the officers and I continue to support our mission statement: to provide programs, education, and services that promote and foster the highest degree of safety in the transportation of school children and strengthen the quality of student transportation through professional management.
At the end of the day, I had to remind myself that old standards and old routines no longer exist. Our members need to be our best advocate. The normal that we knew has changed, but the school bus is a constant, as it gives the children in our communities an opportunity for a future.
3. The PSBA recently launched its “You Behind the Wheel" campaign to raise awareness about the ongoing driver shortage. What prompted the campaign and how will it help aid in recruitment needs?
The school bus driver shortage has been an issue long before COVID-19, and has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. We initially started planning this recruitment campaign back in late 2019, and then had to put that on pause. As we work on recovering from the pandemic, we figured that now was as good of a time as any to get started since we still needed drivers. You cannot fix a problem without taking action, so we decided to get things rolling and try to attract new drivers to the industry.
4. Aside from driver shortage, can you share some of the biggest concerns and ideas you are hearing from association members about providing safe school transportation this school year?
Of course, COVID-19 is still a concern for many of our drivers, though they might fall on different sides of the issue. Some may feel that we are beyond the pandemic and that they do not want to continue to mask up, and others may not be ready to put themselves back in a situation where they are around a bunch of kids on a regular basis.
One of the biggest issues we are seeing are illegal passings. You would be shocked how many people simply do not stop for a bus with its lights on, stop sign out, and kids getting off the bus. Far too often we hear of a tragedy surrounding an impatient or distracted driver and a school bus.
5. What do you wish people outside the world of student transportation knew about it?
We are far more than just bus drivers. Depending on the child’s situation at home, their bus driver might be the first adult or first smile they see that day, which can truly set the tone for the rest of the day in a positive way. In a lot of ways, we are the cornerstone of the education industry — a child could be enrolled in the best school with the best teachers, but if they cannot get to and from school reliably, on time, and, most importantly, safely, none of that matters.