In surely one of the quicker ascensions to the office, Mike Simmons takes the reins as NASDPTS president after a relatively short 10 years in the pupil transportation industry. But make no mistake, Simmons is no greenhorn.
“Mike is a quick learner; he is very smart. Don’t let any of that country boy stuff fool you,” quipped Joe Lightsey, state director of student transportation for the Alabama Department of Education and a close friend of Simmons. “He is a quick learner, and that has helped him out a lot.”
Of course, Simmons was not entirely thrown to the wolves, despite the fact that he took over as NASDPTS president-elect shortly after Charley Kennington announced his resignation from the Texas Department of Safety and the NASDPTS board. Simmons served a full two years under the tutelage of Charlie Hood. The state director from Florida worked side-by-side with Simmons to help direct the NASDPTS strategic plan and to organize the past two association annual meetings. Simmons is quick to point out that Hood and others before him served as ideal mentors.
“NASDPTS has always had a really strong leadership,” recalled Simmons, who to this day lives not far from his boyhood home in Benton, Ark., about 30 miles outside of the state capitol in Little Rock. “Pete Baxter was just coming in as president when I came in in 2000. Everybody knows Pete, and Pete is probably one of the most organized people I know. Follow that up with [Pete] Japikse in Ohio. Organized I’m not. You roll on down to Derek [Graham from North Carolina] and Charlie [Hood]. Simmons added that he will continue to look towards his fellow state directors and especially Hood for guidance.
“Charlie will definitely be involved because he’ll still be sitting as past-president, thank God,” Simmons continued. “He’ll be helping a good bit. Charlie Hood, he’ll shoot me for saying this, in my opinion is probably the most knowledgeable state director we have in the country top to bottom because of his background.”
Interestingly enough, Hood started as a school bus technician, a group with whom Simmons has come to have a lot in common with despite the fact his background is in, of all things, insurance. While Hood and many in the industry learned the ropes in the school bus garage, Simmons, who is also the executive director of the Arkansas School Bus Mechanics Association and the Arkansas Association for Pupil Transportation, was originally
hired by the Arkansas Department of Education in 1984 to work in special projects for the state superintendant shortly after graduating from college. Simmons insured all school buses operating in the state as well as school buildings. He then left for the Arkansas School Boards Association and ran the risk management program there. Then, in 2000, the late Spence Holder retired as state director at the department of education.
Simmons felt the job would be a good fit, even though his knowledge of school buses was fairly limited. Still, before his initial stint with the department of education, he worked for nearly at year at the former Am Tran school bus plant in Conway, Ark., soon to be owned by Navistar’s IC Bus. In fact, one could call Simmons a “scrub” while he worked there.
“I got out of college [at the University of Central Arkansas] and my wife still had a year left in school. So I went to work at the bus factory, actually crossed the picket line to get my job, which made me really popular around there,” he said. “I worked there for a year until she graduated, packed up and moved to Corpus Christi, Texas. We stayed there a few months while I looked for jobs and realized I didn’t like South Texas.”
Lest any Texan hold that against him, speak with Simmons for all of five minutes and any transgressions will be quickly forgiven.
“He remembers names, and everybody likes Mike,” said Alabama’s Lightsey. “He knows who to call on, and he really has fit in with the network and the NASDPTS group to do what is needed to be done. One of his strong points certainly is his people skills.”
And, according to Lightsey, Simmons is also adept at cutting to the chase.
“He’s not as left-brained as I am,” Lightsey added. “Mike is able to see the light at the end of the tunnel pretty quickly.”
That skill should serve him well as NASDPTS president, a role in which he will oversee the association’s submission of comments to rulemaking proposals and guidance and assistance to federal agencies, including NTSB, NHTSA, FMCSA, EPA, the U.S. Department of Education, TSA and Health and Human Services.
“I am confident that Mike will continue our tradition of providing leadership on a variety of national issues that have transportation policy implications, including transportation of homeless students, our interface with the Safe Routes to School Program and other aspects of reauthorizing the highway bill (SAFETEA-LU), U.S. DOT’s campaign to prohibit distracted driving, and the new federal proposal for reducing GHG emissions and improving fuel economy of school buses and other medium and heavy vehicles,” added Hood.
That is certainly a mouthful of responsibilities, and that fails to consider his everyday job in Little Rock. But Simmons approaches projects, challenges and even dilemmas with a down-home confidence that could be the very flair the industry needs during these unsure economic times. After all, as Simmons readily admits, he was flying by the seat of his pants when he took over the Arkansas state director title. But he quickly identified help.
Take the Arkansas school bus driver certification and vehicle inspection programs. During Simmons’ first go-round at the department of education, then Gov. Bill Clinton had just implemented the nation’s first state teacher testing program, and Simmons was called on to help administer the exams for some 40,000 teachers state-wide.
“It was a really big deal to the point of almost rebellion on the part of the teachers,” Simmons recalled. “We went in and tested every existing teacher in the state: reading, writing and arithmetic. I wasn’t really involved in the developing the test per se. My job was more logistics on how we were going to administer the test, test site, test administrators.”
But that included the daunting task of meeting the state superintendant’s direction that no teacher be forced to travel more than 20 miles from their home school district to take the exam. So Simmons oversaw the administration of 250 test sites across Arkansas. It was through that experience that he learned how to administer school bus inservices.
“When I came on board in 2000, this office consisted of a state director and an assistant, period,” he added.
“Districts were self-inspecting their school buses. As far as the driver in-service, we contracted about 50 to 55 local transportation personnel to do those.”
Driving training consisted of one, three-day inservice each year under a “train-the-trainer” format. Then those trainers would go out into the state and teach their own lessons. There was no set curriculum and “no uniformity whatsoever,” according to Simmons.
Almost immediately he identified the waste. What if he could hire a dozen full-time staff instead? He wrote a proposal and received approval via new legislation in 2005 to hire 10 additional employees and to oversee the first real expansion of the state’s pupil transportation office. Half of the new hires were school bus inspectors and the other half were driver trainers.
Simmons then turned to his friend Lightsey in Alabama for ideas on implementing a real state-run inspection program. Simmons modified Alabama’s forms to fit Arkansas’ needs. Ever since, Arkansas has inspected every school bus once a year. And, on the driver side, Simmons’ staff of driver instructors provide the in-service training year-round instead of only in July and August.
And all school bus drivers receive actual certification in addition to their CDL.
“It’s brought some accountability to transportation,” Simmons added.
All in a day’s, rather, a few short year’s worth of work. NASDPTS and the entire industry hopes to accomplish much more over the next two years with Simmons at the head table, especially in terms of the American School Bus Council.
“There are other national associations out there that need to join forces with us,” he concluded. “School officers, the [National]School Boards Association, those are the folks who can help. PTA is missing link. You need the mommas and the daddies. It’s going to be slow, but I know with this ASBC Champions Program we’re asking folks to go out and present this to anyone who will listen to them.”
With Simmons helping to push things along, the light at the end of the tunnel might just be getting closer.