Administrators at Huber Heights City Schools, located north of Dayton, Ohio, know just how important transportation operations are, to the point where the superintendent has his commercial driver’s license and drives a school bus when needed.
Superintendent Jason Enix has had his CDL for almost five years now, explaining that he went through the process when he was the assistant superintendent for Beavercreek City Schools, about 20 miles southeast of his current district.
“There was a driver shortage, of course, back then, too,” he continued. “So, we were routinely having issues with getting bus coverage in that district as well. And the superintendent [Paul Otten], business manager [Greg Thompson] and I, all decided that we would just go ahead and go through the entire process to get our driver’s license.
“We started with all the background checks and then the classwork instruction and all those kinds of things. And because it wasn’t a full-time job, it did take a little bit of time to get through all of that. But we just felt like there was a need [as] we weren’t able to get enough drivers,” he said.
Enix explained that while at Beavercreek he filled in as a sub driver when necessary for several years. Now that he’s the superintendent at Huber Heights, a position he accepted last July, the same need for drivers was apparent. “I talked to the transportation department early on and said I was available if you need it,” he recalled, adding that he plans on keeping his CDL active and current.
Erica Ford, the transportation supervisor for Huber Heights, explained that the district has about 45 routes, transporting students to seven school buildings in three tiers. The district in total transports about 2,340 students. She added that the district is short about three full-time drivers and could use another three to four substitute drivers.
Ford noted that in order to accommodate the shortage, standbys are built into the schedule. She added that sometimes she has to double up on routes, which does create longer ride times, but she stays in communication with parents.
“It’s really important, especially when we’ve got subs covering routes or we have [drivers] doubled and [students are] not going to get home at the same time,” she added. “It’s usually in the afternoon we have to struggle. I don’t call Jason unless I have no other option.”
Ford continued, “I think having Jason drive has been really beneficial.”
She noted that parents will walk into the transportation department asking to drive because they know the district is in need. “Shortly after our meeting today, I had a community member come into the office inquiring about a driving position,” she wrote via email on Jan. 11. “He said that he saw the story [in the local newspaper] of the superintendent driving the bus and said he’d like to help us out. …He is retired and looking for a new challenge. If all goes well, he’ll be starting his training with us in the next few weeks.”
Ford added that she’s worked in the district for about 14 years total and has never had a superintendent have their CDL and be willing to step up in this capacity. She recently took on the transportation director role in October, after working in building administration.
“I can’t even tell you what it’s done for our department,” she said of Enix offering to drive when needed. “Transportation, we’re kind of like the redheaded stepchild and Jason has made us feel that we are important, we are valued, and the drivers feel that.”
She noted that having the superintendent drive has boosted morale and helped with retention. “He acknowledges us. He recognizes us and I think that helps the culture here,” she said. “And when you talk about retaining staff, that’s just as important as recruiting.”
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One of his biggest challenges to obtaining his CDL, Enix said, was the number of practice hours needed. Because school bus driving isn’t his full-time job, he would take a couple hours here and there to train. Plus, he said, in the Beavercreek service area there are no railroad tracks, so he had to drive to places where there were so he could pass that part of the CDL road test.
Erica Ford, the transportation supervisor for Huber Heights City School District in Ohio, said the routing software as well as video cameras are used across the fleet of school buses but GPS capabilities are still needed. Despite the district not being where it needs to be financially to support such a purchase, Superintendent and part-time school bus driver Jason Enix added that the technology would be a big help.
“It just triggers what I think is the hardest part about not being a regular driver, and not knowing the routes,” he said. “And by definition, when you drive a bus, you’re a distracted driver because you have 40 kids on the bus. But when you add to that the route sheet that’s in really small print, that’s in the dark and you need to manipulate your lights, and you’ve got something in your hand, you can’t have your hands on the wheel in the same way as if you didn’t have a route sheet. Being a sub driver is infinitely more difficult than being a regular route driver.”
He added that transportation departments put sub drivers in the hardest position because they’re required to drive routes that they don’t know. Add to that the challenges of driving in predawn or dusk hours and during inclement weather. Plus, he said Huber Heights requires younger students be met by a parent or guardian when exiting at stops, but the sub drivers don’t know the students or their families.
“Being a sub, it just adds uncertainty to what you’re doing every day,” he said. “And aside from all the other things that you’re doing to drive students safely from point A to point B.”
GPS capabilities he said would help with giving drivers more support. “Most drivers probably don’t need it after they’ve done the route three to five days or have a regular route. But because of what Erica talked about with the shortage, we have so many people that are covering. Even the regular route drivers are oftentimes having to do routes that are not their own routes.”
He noted that while it the technology is expensive, he is hoping to acquire a grant to make the purchase affordable.
Since being at Huber Heights, he said he’s filled in maybe three to four times but noted that he is called only as a “last ditch effort.” Despite that, Enix added that he enjoys driving as it gives him a chance to spend time with students on a more personal level as well as with the other drivers.
“I think first and foremost it’s a chance to be out there on the road with students and interacting [with them],” he said, adding that most of the students on board don’t necessarily recognize him as the man in charge. “I think the other part of it is being able to go over to the transportation department and hop on a bus and be a part of the transportation department. It’s probably a little bit unusual for this role and be able to walk in there and talk to the mechanics and the drivers and just be a part of the organization. And it’s a good feeling to go and help out, as it’s not part of my normal job duties.”
Enix added that his biggest surprise was the process and training required to be a driver. “Doing the training and getting your CDL should not be easy because of what you’re doing, every day transporting kids. But it’s so not an easy process. The amount of time, effort and energy that went into becoming a licensed driver, as I’ve often said, is one of the more difficult things I’ve done professionally.”
He noted that maneuvering a school bus is entirely different than a car. “I think the pre-trip to me was the biggest barrier, and it is for a lot of people because you have such a script that you have to know and follow and be able to do in 30 minutes,” he explained. “And you have somebody on your shoulder making sure that you’re doing it the right way.”
He said because it’s not something that he does every day, when he’s called to sub he has yet to feel comfortable doing the pre-trip inspection. Instead, he said, a mechanic will do it in advance for him because he wants to ensure it’s done correctly and that the bus is safe.
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“I think that that was probably the biggest surprise to me. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I don’t think I quite realized just how hard it would be to get all the way through that process and get your license and then you just jump in the next day and you’re off transporting kids,” he said. “It’s just something a lot of people don’t quite understand.”
Enix added that his driving has resulted in positive public relations for the district. He added that he has been recognized in different places throughout the community for driving and it’s been positively received. He advised other school administrators that have thought about getting their CDL to follow through with it.
“It’s a matter of the more people that can fill in as needed, that’s better for the transportation department,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t recommend it to everyone as they might not be comfortable driving. “But for those that are interested and willing, it’s also a great way to you start and end your day.”
Enix concluded by adding that without transportation, students can’t get to school and then no one else can do their job.
“Unfortunately, transportation is often overlooked. … but they’re unsung heroes of the district,” he said.