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.
“Transportation is a process-driven business. If you don’t have good processes and pay attention to detail, it opens the door for lots of massive issues,” advised Gregory Scott Denton, transportation director of Union County Public Schools in Monroe, North Carolina. “The better you are at attention to detail and the more processes you have in place and documented so that parents and schools know what your processes look like in operations … the [smoother] it goes and the better you can communicate it.”
Denton added this is the first piece of advice he would give to anyone entering the industry.
Another vital aspect of pupil transportation, he stressed, is explaining why things are done the way they’re done. Otherwise, if people don’t know the why behind a task, they might make up how to perform it, he said. Explaining things more, Denton noted, offers a better outcome for the task and more support from the people doing it.
“The third thing for me is growing people, trying to give people an opportunity to be successful and develop them, even if they don’t stay with us,” Denton said. “I want to look back at my career when I’m finished and say, ‘I gave people a chance to grow their skillsets.’”
He added that no matter what the task is, he wants to be able to provide people in his organization with different opportunities to grow and develop their skillsets. He said he wants to foster a workplace reputation of growing people and providing employees with opportunities. He hasn’t always had this mentality, he admitted. He said as he’s gotten older, he started to understand the importance of treating people right.
“I retired early and came back in this business because primarily sitting at home — I wasn’t contributing to anything,” Denton said. “And I wanted to make sure that at least while I’m alive, I can make a difference in what’s happening.”
Since his return, Denton said he has focused less on his own career and more on the careers of others. “My focus now is 100 percent on trying to develop our people and make sure that our organization grows and that folks have a chance to grow,” he said.
He explained that most young people coming into a job are looking at it as a stepping stone to more money and responsibility. But Denton said climbing the career ladder isn’t about what you do but how you treat people.
“My focus is more on other people, and not much on myself,” Denton said. “That’s just the school of hard knocks. I always thought if I did a great job, I would take care of myself and be promoted. Well, some of that’s true. You can do a great job and you can get promoted by taking care of yourself. But my feeling now is that, if I had to do it over again, I would probably have taken care of others more in my career.
“And that’s one of my focuses now is just taking care of other people and trying to make sure they get opportunities,” he continued. “We try to develop from within. We don’t like to hire a lot of folks from the outside if we can help it. … We want our internal people to be good enough to compete for jobs available on the inside. And I really want to focus on that goal.”
He explained that now he wants to be known for making a difference in the lives of others. Just like his mentor, Dan Byrnes, the former transportation director for Cleveland County Schools in North Carolina, did for him.
“He did for me what I’m trying to do for other people,” Denton said, adding that he met Byrnes in 1999 at his first North Carolina Pupil Transportation Association meeting. “He took me under his wing, he guided me and gave me advice. He listened to me, evaluated things that that I thought were good ideas or things I wanted to do and gave me feedback. We’re best friends today, and I would not be where I’m without him. That’s just the truth.”
Denton Throughout his Career
For the first 15 years of his career, Denton said he worked in human resources for various organizations. However, he used to play basketball with the brother of the superintendent of his hometown school district, when a transportation director job became available. At that time, Denton was commuting almost an hour and a half to and from work every day and was looking for something closer.
He said he didn’t have much knowledge of transportation operations but had business experience, and the district wanted to take a chance on someone new. Denton served as the transportation director of Franklin County Schools in North Carolina in 1999. Three years later, he became an area manager at the second-largest school district in the state, Wake County Public School System.
By 2003, the transportation director position at Durham Public Schools became available, a title he held for 10 years. He worked as the assistant superintendent for five more years at Durham and then retired early to help with personal family matters.
He didn’t work for 18 months and shared that he became bored and started looking for a new opportunity. He said Byrnes was working part-time at Union County Public Schools and informed him of the open transportation director position.
“Sure enough, they were gracious enough to give me a chance to come down here, and it’s been great ever since,” Denton said.
However, he added that his first day on the job, March 16, 2020, was also the first day students didn’t attend school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Denton described the experience as a “perfect opportunity,” despite others using the phrase the “perfect storm.”
He spent the first three months of the job looking at processes and ways to automate them. He started documenting everything as well as preparing for what COVID-19 mitigation strategies were needed. He said the school closures gave him the luxury of time to figure out what was and wasn’t working.
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Last October, the department moved into a new facility, which he said was where more prep work was needed. Union County didn’t go back to school for full-time, in-person learning until April and after spring break.
“When I came in I had time to really look at the way the operation had been running and put some processes in place that I think we will benefit from,” Denton said. “And that was a whole team effort. My team was evaluating how we operate here, and we did a fantastic job of going through that and spending our time wisely during that time.”
He added that he couldn’t have asked for a better situation. Technology-wise, the district is in the process of replacing its camera systems, both interior and exterior, as well as upgrading tablets. He added that Union County is also adding extended stop-arms to school buses to improve the safety of passenger stops and student crossing.
He noted that the extended stop-arms are a twofold safety improvement. Not only does the technology improve safety, but it also forces bus drivers to pay more attention to the loading and unloading details instead of becoming complacent in their duties.
Going forward, Denton said he hopes to see his organization continue to run as smoothly as possible, with or without him as the director. He wants the transition to the next director to be as seamless as possible.
“Once you get in this business, it gets in your blood,” Denton said. “The people in this industry are willing to help you in various and sundry ways. I met some of the best people in my lifetime in this business.”