Editor’s note — Since School Transportation News celebrates its 30th year in print in September, and the pearl is the traditional gift given for 30th anniversaries, throughout the year we will share stories and pearls of wisdom from student transportation professionals across North America.
“Have patience,” urged Matthew Thomas, the director of transportation for Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) in Southern California. A role he’s had for the last five years. “If you don’t have any patience or lose [it] easily, this isn’t the job or industry for you. You must have endless patience to do any job within the school bus industry.”
He continued, “Also, be extremely flexible especially when it comes to adapting to change. There are so many changes, especially with the COVID-19 issues. Change is hard and sometimes even harder in the school bus industry.”
Thomas, who is also the president of the California Association of School Transportation Officials (CASTO), advised a new generation coming into the industry to not sweat the small stuff. He noted there are too many larger issues in life worthy of focusing on, rather than small things that might turn out to be irrelevant. Plus, he said, most people have challenges to deal with outside of work, speaking of his own personal journey.
Thomas Throughout His Career
Thomas was working part-time at a Lucky chain supermarket when he saw a banner hanging outside his hometown school district that sought school bus drivers. His part-time schedule at the market allowed him the flexibility to take the commercial driver license training course during the day, while still working at the grocery store at night. It was in 1996 he started driving for Orange Unified School District.
Pam McDonald was the director of transportation there at the time, and she became one of Thomas’ most influential mentors throughout his career. Despite retiring from the industry last year, McDonald and Thomas remain close friends.
“When I began working for her as a driver in 1996, I fell in love with the industry and said to myself almost immediately ‘I want to do her job one day,’” he recalled.
Thomas’s dream became a reality in 2012 when he became the director at Coachella Valley Unified School District near Palm Springs. Thomas said McDonald helped him from every step of the way, tutoring him on possible interview questions, discussing strategies to address budgeting challenges, understanding special education requirements and bus inspection processes.
“[Thomas] is a great director because he sees the best in others,” McDonald told School Transportation News. “He encourages them to be the best they can be. He wants people to be successful.”
McDonald added that Thomas treats everyone equally and fairly. “He knows what’s reasonable and shares my philosophy of: ‘Happy people come to work and will always try to do their best.’ Let your employees know you care and be compassionate,” McDonald explained.
Throughout his career, Thomas has held many roles including a bus driver, dispatcher, state-certified driver instructor, supervisor, manager, and director. But his biggest professional accomplishment to date, he shared, is working his way through the ranks of CASTO. He was installed as president on March 28.
Another career feat was completing the state Bus Driver Instructor Training Program, which consisted of six months of course work compacted into three weeks. “It was one amazing and challenging experience. I only suggest doing it once in your lifetime,” Thomas laughed.
Throughout his 25 years in the industry, he said the biggest lesson he learned is there is no such thing as too much driver training. He noted that because of all the different training school bus drivers complete, managers should plan a schedule of topics and when they will be presented at safety and in-service meetings.
Thomas also led the replacement of aging diesel school buses at AUHSD. Over the last four years, AUHSD has replaced 73 diesel buses with 46 propane, 15 CNG and 12 electric vehicles. He said the district was able to accomplish the fleet overhaul with help from various grant agencies such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
Thomas Share his Personal Challenge
Amid career successes, Thomas was also wading through the ramifications of an unhealthy lifestyle. When Thomas became a school bus driver, he said he started putting on weight. His weight fluctuated, but in the year 2000 he set out to become a California Highway Patrol officer.
He needed to lose around 80 pounds, which started his fitness journey. He was running five to six days a week and changed his diet completely. However, in July 2004 when he received the call to attend the academy, he decided a law enforcement career wasn’t for him.
By that October, he returned to the school bus world and started substitute driving for the Garden Grove Unified School District near Anaheim. Soon he became a director 100 miles away from his hometown in Coachella Valley, and his weight gain accelerated.
He shared that because he didn’t know many people after he moved, his refrigerator became his crutch to support him in his boredom. While living in the over 100-degree heat and being alone, Thomas stayed inside. It was during this time that he reached a weight of 420 pounds. He knew something had to be done. He was 47 years old and was prescribed his third different blood pressure medication.
On Dec. 19, 2018, Thomas opted for a sleeve gastrectomy, a surgical weight-loss procedure that reduces the stomach to about 15 percent of its original size. He said it’s basically like starting over with a baby stomach.
Thomas has been able to keep the weight off, adding that the procedure wasn’t as bad as he originally thought it was going to be. He now incorporates healthier foods into his diet and continues to run four days a week. He noted that he still holds his bus driver’s license and training certificate, which had grown imperiled as it was becoming a challenge for him to complete the physical portion of the exam.
He said that while he expected to hear negative comments for undergoing the surgery, they never materialized and he feels good about his decision. He said he is willing to help anyone that has questions about weight loss and healthy living, and he wants to remind people that surgery is not taking the easy way out. Following surgery, it’s still up to the individual to keep the weight off and not go back into their old habits.
He advised school bus drivers to not let their eating get out of control. He added that he knows there’s always a holiday or some reason to eat coming up, and while it’s fun to try all the foods at a potluck, he advised sticking to small portions. Thomas added it’s never too late to start your weight loss journey.
“I just turned 50 and the path I was going on wasn’t good for me,” Thomas noted. “I thought I was going to be dead by 50.”
He added that he no longer struggles with sleep apnea and is feeling better than ever.
The Next Step
Going forward, he said he hopes to continue to have the best, well-oiled department with professional drivers that are happy to come to work to a fleet they are proud of. As CASTO president for the next two years, and then a two-year stint as past president, he said he aims to continuously increase membership numbers.
When discussing what keeps him in the industry, he said it’s the people. “The people I currently work with, have worked with in the past and the new people I get to meet through CASTO and other conferences such as the STN EXPO [Reno] and the California Association of School Business Officials,” Thomas explained. “There are some truly devoted and loyal folks that are always willing to step up and help and become your friends for life.”
His final piece of advice for anyone thinking of becoming a school bus driver, looking for a career change, or keeping busy after retirement from another field is, “Don’t hesitate to apply and get going,” he concluded.