Karim Johnson first drove a South Carolina school bus part-time when he started college.
“Knowing early that I needed to work and go to school, I applied to drive a bus right after my 18th birthday during my last semester in high school,” he recalls. “After graduation, I completed my training over the summer. I started driving that fall for the same district where I attended high school while attending my first semester of college.”
Now, he manages school transportation for students in New York’s Bethlehem Central School District, where voters in 2021 approved the district spending $1.8 million on clean school bus infrastructure.
Judith Kehoe, former chief business and finance officer for the district, praised Johnson’s efforts to modernize fleet operations with GPS, telematics, and tablets for route navigation.
“He is a champion of professional leadership in the school bus transportation field who cares deeply about serving the students of our district,” Kehoe said.
School Bus Fleet has selected Karim Johnson as our 2023 Administrator of the Year.
Devoted to the ‘Cheese Bus’
Johnson’s life straddled north and south – he was born and raised in the Belmont section of the Bronx in New York City, but spent summers as a teenager with family in Jackson, South Carolina. As his high school senior year got started, his family moved to Columbia, South Carolina.
Johnson took his first ride on a yellow bus while attending a private school pre-kindergarten program in New York.
“I remember how I enjoyed riding the school bus every day and loved my bus driver,” he says.
After pre-K, though, he mostly walked or rode public transit to school.
“The only time I had the chance to ride a school bus, or ‘cheese bus’ as most NYC kids (including myself) called it, was for school-sponsored extracurricular trips,” Johnson says. “I didn’t ride a school bus to and from school again until the first semester of my senior year in high school after moving to South Carolina.”
He still remembers Bus 507-1010 and its driver, Mr. Rast.
“It was a brand new bus and still had the new bus smell,” Johnson says. “I learned later in my career that this bus was part of the largest one-time purchase of school buses in our industry history. As a side note, I had a chance to drive this same bus four years later.”
He’s been active in the New York Association for Pupil Transportation. In his spare time, he enjoys video games and tinkering with cars and (perhaps no surprise here) the occasional school bus. Recently married, he has two stepdaughters and a stepson.
“My new family is the joy of my life,” he says. “I wish I had done so sooner, but I think I am now at the stage of my life to truly appreciate being a father and a husband.”
Coping with the Bus Driver Shortage
The nationwide school bus driver shortage affected BCSD, causing late buses and increasing workloads for drivers, attendants, mechanics, and office staff.
“It has been a challenge every day to make sure we have students at school ready to learn,” Johnson says.
His approach to battling the shortage relied on an investment in student bus safety technology, including:
“We also leveraged our routing software and student information system to create an electronic student registration process to better determine actual ridership,” he says. “It was our hope that with the increased operational efficiencies gained from the deployment of this technology, we would then be able to reduce overall need for drivers. It worked. We reduced our total route buses from a pre-COVID high of 89 to our current number of 55 route buses daily.”
Benefits of School Transportation Technology
The district also sees cost savings from this technology: “Telematics data alone have already averted costly engine repairs by alerting our mechanics of a potential issue before it becomes critical.”
Johnson’s proud that the fleet services team for the past three years has enjoyed a 0% failure rate during biannual safety inspections by the New York State Department of Transportation.
“Telematics technology enhances their ability to be proactive in maintaining a safe school bus fleet for our students,” he says. “The ability to have access to real-time locations from the GPS technology has made our parents feel at ease that my staff can quickly identify the location of their child whenever they call. Driver tablets allow for electronic inspection of buses and turn-by-turn for substitute drivers further streamlining operations and increasing efficiency of the services we deliver to our community.”
Greener Yellow Buses Join the Fleet
Bethlehem Central School District started its zero-emission transition a full year before New York Gov. Kathy Hochul called for a totally clean school bus fleet by 2035.
“The voters in our community approved for the district to purchase five zero-emission buses through the NY Truck Voucher Incentive Program in 2021,” Johnson says. “In the same year, the voters approved for the district to spend $1.8 million on zero-emission school bus infrastructure to power up to 44 buses. Since then, the voters approved for the district to purchase a sixth zero-emission bus in 2022, and we are currently evaluating the purchase of a seventh zero-emission bus for 2023.”
The new buses are Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouleys equipped with First Light signs and Bus Patrol stop-arm cameras.
The shift hasn’t always been easy, he notes.
“As with early adopters of any new technology like the EV buses or more established technology like GPS/telematics, there will always be bumps in the road during deployment,” he says. “With supply chain issues, employee learning curves, and navigating charge-management issues, we have had our share of bumps. We have been quick to adapt and been able to learn from our mistakes. Despite any challenges, our bus drivers, attendants, mechanics, transportation administration team, facilities staff, and our vendors have been trusted partners every step of the way in ensuring that our technology projects have been a success.”
Building an Inclusive Culture
From a management perspective, Johnson watches for subtle shifts in the work atmosphere in the hopes of being proactive about any issues that arise with morale.
“If something gets by you, quickly react and address the problem head-on,” he says. “Show humility when you are wrong and stand firm on matters of principle. Building morale is more than just monetary compensation. Creating an inclusive working environment consisting of trust and respect builds a positive workplace culture and keeps morale high.”
He offers encouragement for anyone considering a career in the school transportation industry: “Don’t allow what you hear or think steer you away from a stable, fulfilling career. See for yourself! People think that the yellow bus they see on the road is all that there is to school transportation. Providing for a safe bus, the drivers who operate them, and the attendants who watch over the students each day requires a highly capable and competent staff of professionals behind the scenes. There are so many career paths within pupil transportation. There are technology, logistics, tradesperson, and leadership career paths, all in one industry. Many successful leaders in our industry today started behind the wheel, attending to students, or in the shop.”