Editor’s Note: This profile is part of the series STN is publishing throughout the year on women who have made an impact in the school transportation industry. To read other profiles, visit: www.stnonline.com/go/women
Sandy Dillman has lived in California most her life and started in the student transportation industry three decades ago as a school bus driver. This summer, she and her husband, Greg will pack their bags.
Next month, Dillman retires as director of transportation at Apple Valley Unified School District, which serves the high desert area about 90 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. She is moving to Texas, where her two children currently reside. While she said she is looking forward to the move, the change will be bittersweet.
“I have raised two children here, they went through our school system at Apple Valley,” Dillman said. “It’s very bittersweet. The only reason I am retiring is because my children have grown up. One went into the army and one is a merchant marine, and they are both civilians in Texas. They have a husband and a wife and children, and that is what is pulling me away from here. I don’t want to miss my grandkids grow up.”
Dillman started her career as a substitute bus driver for AVUSD in April 1988. Her stepmom was a school bus driver instructor at the district and encouraged her to apply. She went from making $3.45 an hour in a factory to $7 as a bus driver. In December 1988, she was hired permanently as a bus driver.
From there her career progressed. She became a delegate behind-the-wheel trainer and then went through the California Department of Education’s state-certified instructor program. In 1999, she became the AVUSD transportation manager, and in 2001 was named director of transportation, a position that Dillman has held ever since. When she retires after 32 years in transportation, Apple Valley will be the only school district that Dillman has worked for.
“Most directors don’t seem to stay in California at the same district,” Dillman said. “It’s been rare to find one. I have been here for 19 years as the director, and that’s rare. I went back and did a little research on previous directors and I am the longest holding position in Apple Valley history. The longest prior to me was maybe 12 years.”
Dillman runs the district’s day-to-day operations, overseeing 32 general education routes and 17 special needs routes.
“I think my greatest challenge after this is not knowing what to do with 13 to 14 hours of my daily life that I used to spend here,” Dillman said. “Because I typically get here at a quarter to five in the morning and I am usually here till five or six at night.”
Her husband is also an employee with AVUSD and was a school bus driver for many years. When Dillman became transportation director in 2001, Greg Dillman moved to the nutritional services department and is retiring as the warehouse supervisor.
“The running joke in the district is ‘I get them to school and he feeds them,’” Dillman said.
In addition to the director position, she has also been very involved statewide. Dillman has served on the California Association of School Transportation Officials (CASTO) executive board since 2012, as well as on the state roadeo committee. Dillman has served in every office of CASTO Chapter 20 and has been a member since 1990.
In April, she was awarded the CASTO Arnita Moon Memorial Service Above Self Award. The award is presented to a current member who has belonged to the association for at least five years. The award recognizes individuals who raise the image of public service, demonstrates high standards, loyalty and commitment to the industry, and have made a significant lasting contribution in their role.
Another professional accomplishment Dillman cited to School Transportation News was her working relationship with her employees, and creating a school bus replacement program in her district.
She added that while it was a challenge at first to transition from co-worker to boss at AVUSD, she said she cares about her employees as much as they care about her.
“I promised myself when I became the director, I would not forget where I came from,” Dillman said. “So, I try to model or mold what I do around that, trying to remember what it was like to be a driver. That way, I can be supportive of the parents in our district but [also] support the employees in our district.”
During the 2010-2011 school year, Dillman said her bus fleet was the oldest in California. It was during this time she implemented a replacement program, and now her oldest bus is a 2012 edition. She was able to replace her entire fleet in a five to six year period and the district still replaces three to five buses a year. California is a state that provides school districts with no regulations or specifications on bus-replacement age or mileage.
“I did buy 28 buses at one time, which was huge, and I don’t want somebody else to ever have to go through that, because that was a major headache, to replace that many buses at once,” Dillman said.
Dillman added that she recently applied for and received two different grants. One grant was for almost $400,000 for the purchase and installation of diesel particulate filters. The other grant was for two electric school buses and the charging infrastructure. While Dillman won’t see any of the new technologies in use before she leaves, she said was excited as no one else had ever obtained them for her district.
Another accomplishment Dillman discussed was being able to speak at the National Association for Pupil Transportation Summit conference two years ago with Ron Kinney, a retired state director for the California Department of Education and a past-president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, on the topic of school bus illegal passing and crossing students to and from bus stops.
“We do things so different here in California than in any other state,” Dillman said. “People think we are crazy, because we get out of our bus and physically red-light cross our kids. But we don’t have kids getting hit here. So, it was an honor to speak with him.”
One of the aspects that has kept her in the industry so long, she added, is her love for the amazing people and the instant network that is formed among directors.
“It’s a great job. I can’t imagine not bleeding yellow. However, I couldn’t do what I do without the amazing people in our industry and I mean, not just in California,” Dillman said. “My daughter jokes that I probably know more people than she does in the state of Texas because of our industry.”
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Accomplishments don’t come without challenges and Dillman remembers one of the hardest days in her 32 years of transportation. On Aug. 23, 2016, two weeks before the one-year anniversary of the death of Paul Lee, a nonverbal student with autism who died on his Whittier, California school bus after being left onboard by his driver for eight hours during a heatwave, one of Dillman’s drivers left a nonverbal special needs student sitting in the front seat of a school bus. Dillman said the student was not injured, but was on the bus for 80 minutes when it was 100 degrees outside.
Dillman discussed the challenges she faced with that incident, and how she stayed honest to herself and the parents during that time. The next day, Dillman said she held a mandatory meeting with all of her drivers and changed their pre-inspection protocol. She also had Child Check Mate systems installed in their entire fleet by December 2016. That was before a state law went into effect that required all school buses to be equipped with an alarm system that prompts bus drivers to check for students at the end of routes.
“That was by far my most challenging [moment] in a leadership role, dealing with the parents of the student. … Man, I cried every day for at least two weeks after that incident happened,” Dillman said.
Dillman added that she is in the process of teaching the new AVUSD director the ropes of the job and is constantly telling him that he is not in this alone. Instead there are multiple contacts around the country that he could use if he becomes stuck. She reminds him to not reinvent the wheel, but instead to figure out how other directors are doing certain things and use their approaches.
As Dillman prepares for her move to Texas with her husband, she said is going to miss the family she is leaving behind.
“I am not sure if anybody knows how hard it is going to be. I just don’t know if anyone knows how hard it is going to be. As excited as I am to retire, I don’t think anybody realizes how difficult it is going to be at the same time,” Dillman said with emotion. “To leave this family, to go to my personal family, it’s a struggle. But it is time for me to move on and let somebody else take the reins.”
Dillman commented that she is excited to be retiring at only 56 years old, but she added that she will be joining the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation. While she admitted that it will be challenging to learn new state guidelines, regulations and specifications, she is looking forward to making a difference in another state.
Dillman said she hopes to bring some of California to Texas in the form of suggesting a better, safer way to cross students to and from bus stops.
Dillman reported that she and her husband will still be attending the STN EXPO Reno conference in years to come, and she said she can’t wait to see everybody again.
“You know we are retiring, but we are not checking out,” Dillman noted.