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Nebraska Transportation Director Fueled by Constant Industry Challenges

Transitioning to the educational environment from a military background, where discipline is paramount, was a struggle for Rich Casey.

He spent 28 years in the U.S. Air Force, flying B-52 bombers, before retiring in 2002. He said he didn’t have any school bus experience while working in the military, but he quickly picked up what was required of him when he first entered the industry over 15 years ago.

“I did nothing with school buses other than ride to the airplane in one,” he laughed recently during a conversation with School Transportation News, for an ongoing series on student transporters with over a decade of experience in the industry.

Following his retirement from military life in 2002, he taught Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at Bellevue Public Schools in Nebraska, located 8 miles north of Omaha. The ROTC program at Bellevue was Air Force specific, Casey recalled, and teaching allowed him to remain connected to his roots and to continue to foster relationships with people like him.

However, in December of 2004, the district transportation building burned down, and the superintendent offered him a position to take over transportation operations.

“Reluctantly I agreed because he twisted my arm, and I thought I would do it for a little awhile and then maybe go back to teaching, and then do something else,” Casey shared. “But I actually found that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the challenge. So here I am, in July it will be 16 years later, still doing it.”

Casey said his transition to director of transportation at Bellevue Public Schools was not the only challenge he had to overcome.

“I think coming from a military background, where discipline is paramount, everybody has to do what their superior asks them to do, and there is a serious repercussion if you don’t,” Casey explained. “And that is a necessary thing in the military. You can’t have people say, ‘Well, I don’t really feel like dropping bombs today.’”

He said entering the public education arena and being around students, he realized the discipline wasn’t always there. Learning how to deal with the disrespect that he saw in the classroom became a struggle for him.

Rich Casey

Casey said the transition into student transportation was the next change he needed to get used to. He explained that the commitment one makes in the military is to accept and excel at a 24/7 job. Officers and enlisted men and women don’t go home until the work is done. But in school transportation, he said he doesn’t have the 100-percent commitment from every employee. He said he had to realize the expectations of part-time work, in particular, and how time-driven the education world is.

At Bellevue Public Schools, Casey runs a tight-knit and clean operation, something he said he is very proud of. The district employs 75 part-time school bus drivers, 12 full-time staff members and five mechanics. He oversees the operation of 86 buses, 46 of which are special needs buses, and five vans to transport about 2,000 students to school and home daily.

“When we compare our buses to other buses in the local area, the cleanliness, the professionalism of our drivers, the quality service that we provide, it gives me warm fuzzies to know that is the type of operation that we have, that we are running now and people have bought into it,” Casey explained.

Biggest Operational Change

However, despite running a tight-knit operation, Casey said he is struggling to find qualified and experienced drivers as well as mechanics.

“Many times, I have a waiting line of folks who want to come work for us, and that’s for a lot of reasons,” Casey explained.

However, during the current school year, Casey said he has really struggled to fill the voids. From January to March, Casey said he lost 10 drivers, five due to medical reasons. Five others left for other full-time job opportunities. This, he said, is the worst shortage he has experienced. Normally he only loses half as many drivers during the entire year.

Due to the ongoing driver shortage, Casey is cognitive of the fact that he has to deal with drivers differently, in fear of losing them. When operations are short people, he said standards, unfortunately, start to lower.

“You allow your standards to be lowered a little bit, because things that you would normally come down on a driver for, or discipline a driver for, you are hesitant to do that for fear that they will quit,” Casey explained. “So, you really have to pick your battles, unfortunately. And I think that lowers the overall professionalism of the organization.”

He said if it’s a student safety issue, he still addresses that immediately and harshly, depending on the incident.

The district is also struggling to find qualified and experienced mechanics, which has been a challenge for a long time, he added.

Other challenges he faces are parent behavior and parent expectations.

“I hear a lot that kids aren’t how they used to be, and I am not sure that I buy into that,” Casey said. “But I have bought into the fact that parents aren’t how they used to be. I believe that … their expectations are higher. In my 16 years, I have noticed that parents expect a lot more.”

He said parents want their children picked up at their front door and to ride the bus for the shortest possible time. But he explained that when every parent all have similar expectations, meeting those is not always possible.

“And then, support from the parents when issues happen on the bus is certainly a challenge. That has become more of a challenge for me personally in dealing with those situations,” Casey said. “I think a lot of that goes back to having cameras on buses. So, when a parent has an accusation about something happening on the bus, we can pull video and share with parents that this is the reality.”

Even in those instances, he added that parents still choose to sometimes believe their child over the video evidence.

Casey said he reminds his staff to, “not be tainted by that as we move forward, and understanding, also remembering that we are a service organization and we are here to provide a service to our customers, our students and the parents of those students.”

Biggest Technological Change

Casey said along with the installation of interior video cameras, his district has taken serious strides in terms of implementing illegal passing technology.

Six years ago, Bellevue partnered with Radio Engineering Industries (REI), based out of Omaha, Nebraska, to beta test all the company’s new technology. REI also supplies the equipment free of charge to the district. Currently, Casey said his fleet has 13 school buses equipped with stop-arm cameras.

“That has been a pet peeve of mine for over 10 years, people running stop-arms with buses that are loading and unloading students,” Casey said.

Casey called the stop-arm cameras “absolutely amazing pieces of equipment” that allow the bus drivers to focus on their primary duty of loading and unloading the students at a stop, as opposed to trying to write down a license plate number of a vehicle that blows past a stop-arm.

He said the REI videos are downloaded onto his computer automatically and he can even get a text that there was a potential violation.

“I can go in and click a couple of buttons, and I can see the violation, if it was a violation,” Casey said. “We have it set it up now that our law enforcement can also be in that program and see the violation.”

However, Casey noted that Nebraska needs to enact legislation to make it easier for law enforcement to issue a citation. Even though technology now provides clear video and still photographic evidence of violations, law enforcement can do little more than call public attention to the issue.

“I believe that the program actually has been beneficial in the fact that we have virtually no repeat offenders because the police officer can provide 100 percent evidence that there has been a violation,” Casey said. “When a police officer shows up at somebody’s house with a picture or tells them that there is video evidence that they ran a stop arm, they are not going to do it again, at least on purpose. And they become aware of what the rules are and what the law says about stopping.”

For the Future

Casey said that he is proud of the strides his operation has taken in terms of the cleanliness of the fleet and their professional environment.

“In spite of the fact that we have struggles in some areas, we truly have a professional quality environment that our employees work in, and that translate to having safe, clean, buses for our students who ride to and from school every day,” Casey observed.

Going forward, he said he hopes that transportation is not an afterthought but instead increasingly viewed as an inclusive part of the overall educational system. He said transportation needs to be in the forefront of the school conversation.

When asked what kept him the industry, he said it’s been the constant challenges presented to him.

“I actually enjoy stress to a certain degree,” Casey explained. “I like the challenge, and this business is always a challenge, for lots of different reasons. And, I really just enjoy the people that I work with. Working with positive quality people makes me want to come to work every day.”

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