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Retiring Hawaii Leader Encourages Industry to ‘Stop Living on an Island’ 

Nearly every day of James Kauhi’s life has been spent in the tropical paradise of Hawaii, making him the envy of many of his peers in the school transportation industry.

Kauhi (pronounced Cow’-hee) is a native Hawaiian Islander who was born on Oahu and has resided on Maui since 1969. Despite living on an island nearly his entire life, the state director of student transportation for the Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) broke free from his comfort zone and learned to think globally, in terms of the entire industry. It’s his opinion that student transporters across North America should expand their thinking and collaboration for the benefit of the schoolchildren it serves.

He reflected with School Transportation News on his 45-year career in pupil transportation as he plans for retirement at the end of December.

Kauhi began his career in pupil transportation in 1975 as a regular education and special education school bus driver on Maui for a local bus contracting company Student Transportation, a subsidiary of Maui Island Tours. At the time, Maui Island Tours was a diversified ground transportation company with roots in the school bus, tour bus, and car rental fields, Kauhi explained.

James Kauhi, the state transportation director for the Hawaii Department of Education. After 45 years in the industry Kauhi is retiring at the end of 2020.
James Kauhi, the state transportation director for the Hawaii Department of Education. After 45 years in the industry, Kauhi is retiring at the end of 2020.

A year later, Kauhi was recruited to become the school bus operations manager for Student Transportation, charged with overseeing an operation of around 40 contracted school bus units. He said it was around this time he became involved in not only the service delivery but also the business of pupil transportation. He said his duties evolved to include recruiting, training and licensing prospective employees.

Hawaii pupil transportation services are different than those in the continental U.S. Kauhi explained that the Hawaii Department of Education is both the local and state educational authority, serving as one educational system. He also added that Hawaii is one of the few states that outsource all of its pupil transportation services to contractors.

“I am a firm believer in public education,” Kauhi said. “I was a child of the public school system in Hawaii, a system that many called deficient. One question that I got throughout my leadership career was, ‘What college did you go to?’ My answer was always I didn’t [attend one]. Despite all odds, my public education got me to the pinnacle of my profession. As a result, I am and will always be a firm believer that education can make all things possible.”

Following 10 years as a bus contractor, he began his public service career. In September 1985, he worked as a school bus transportation officer for the state of Hawaii. “This is the equivalent of a transportation supervisor of a small school district on the mainland,” he said. “My primary duty was to oversee and manage the day-to-day delivery of contracted school bussing services in the county.”

By 2009, Kauhi said he was recruited to be the state transportation director for the HIDOE, where he has been ever since. By the time of his retirement at the end of this year, he will have served 35 years as a public servant in the pupil transportation sector and 10 years in the bus contracting business.

James Kauhi speaks during a panel discussion on predictive analytics for school buses at the STN EXPO Reno in 2017. He was joined by Keshav Ragunathan of National Express, far left, and Tim Purvis of Poway Unified School District in California.

He said his greatest accomplishment throughout his career occurred in 2013 following a “scathing management audit” report that was released by the state auditor.

“That report concluded that the Hawaii Department of Education lost all control of its pupil transportation program, causing uncontrolled spending on inflated contracts created by poor management, a disjointed organization, lack of professional development, and outdated practices,” Kauhi recalled.

In response, the HIDOE launched an aggressive reform initiative called “Get On Board,” which deconstructed and reconstructed all phases of its entity.

“From procurement methodologies and contracting practices to contract performance management and the use of technology to plan and optimize bus routes,” he explained. “It was an aggressive strategic plan that many doubted would work.”

However, in a span of just under seven years, Kauhi said the HIDOE:

  • Increased competition in the bid market, thereby driving down contract costs by many millions annually.
  • Increased contractor performance through the use of data collection and analysis.
  • Dramatically reduced the number of school bus units contracted through route optimization technology.
  • Created a highly efficient organization that is transparent in all of its business practices.

“And it wasn’t easy,” Kauhi confessed. “But I have to admit that the management audit of our agency was probably the best thing that happened to me in my career. Because it brought this need to look internally and look hard at what we do and how we do it.”

In addition to the “Get On Board” program, he said he is also proud that his staff continues to participate in industry events, such as the National Association for Pupil Transportation conferences. “Their professional development will only help to enhance our ability to achieve our goals and objectives,” he noted.

As a whole, he said the industry’s greatest achievement has been its commitment to lobbying Congress and state legislators to continuously improve and protect the health and welfare of students everywhere.

“This is why I am proud to be a member of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation,” Kauhi said. “I was a latecomer to the organization, but I’m glad I made that move. I highly urge every school bus professional – from the quaint neighborhood district to every major metropolis – to get involved and stay involved in the national stage and national debate.”

Changes, Challenges & Goals

Over his 45-year career, he said that without question, the most significant change he’s noticed has been the integration of technology into all facets of the school transportation industry. Early in his career and as the case with most of his colleagues who have been in the industry as long as him, he said, route planning and optimization were done manually using on-site data.

“Where our students stood is where our routes went,” Kauhi explained. “Technology has vastly improved the efficiency and effectiveness of school bus routes while at the same time increased student health and safety. School transportation has always been a highly regulated industry, as it should be, but we collectively lagged behind in the area of technology until just recently.”

He said, however, over the years he has fallen victim to the notion that his district was doing “just fine,” which he said was a direct consequence of literally living on an island.

“This virtual bubble made us too comfortable with our policies and practices,” Kauhi explained. “I would highly caution my colleagues to not make the same mistake I made. Keep abreast of national trends and follow suit. Seek advice as often as you can and consult other districts of similar size. Never ever sit on your laurels and avoid the pitfalls of short-sightedness.”


Related: Hawaii Launches New Online School Bus Pass in Response to COVID-19
Related: First-Ever Hawaii School Bus Safety Week Honors Heroes


In his final weeks on the job, he said his goal is to ensure that his agency stays on a continuous cycle of improvement, adding that he was sitting in the hot seat during the darkest days and worked hard to build a sustainable enterprise worthy of public confidence and legislative support.

“I trust that my successor will share that goal as well,” he said, adding that the HIDOE is currently still in the recruitment process should have final candidates identified by December.

Despite school buses being the safest form of transportation, he suggested that the industry must continue its quest for 100 percent injury-free and fatality-free service to its communities. Kauhi advised districts to get involved on the national stage to achieve this goal.

“I take public service seriously,” Kauhi said when discussing what has kept him in the industry for this long. “That means an unconditional commitment to serve my community to the very best of my ability in the field that I’ve chosen for myself.”

He said he would not have been as successful in the career of pupil transportation without the help of many talented, hard-working and dedicated individuals who shared his core values. And most importantly, he added, is the support provided by wife Brenda of 37 years.

As he heads into retirement in the next month, Kauhi said he is looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren and traveling.

James Kauhi pictured with his granddaughter Emma Crivello.

“I really believe that it’s important to step aside to allow new leaders to provide their perspective on what’s going on,” He concluded. “We’ve laid out a really sustainable foundation for the future of transportation in Hawaii. I feel strongly about that. But I also believe that maybe it’s time that people hear from someone else or maybe get a fresh perspective on things to make sure that we don’t go back to where we were prior to 2012.”

His lasting advice is to not grow complacent, adding that simply doing the job isn’t enough. Instead, he recommended transportation officials step back every once and a while and look at the big picture. “Are we really doing the best we can?” Kauhi questioned.

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