Ahead of the awarding of Superintendent of the Year at the National Conference on Education this week in San Antonio, Texas, School Transportation News sat down with those in charge of transportation operations at the respective districts that represented to gain a better understanding of how the services function.
Douglas County School System — Douglasville, Georgia
EW Tolbert, the transportation director for Douglas County School System in Georgia, explained that he oversees the operation of 270 buses and 185 daily routes that travel roughly 12,000 miles a day across a three-tier system.
“We are just like any other school district or transportation property around the nation where we are short drivers. What we’ve done is we changed from a two-tier system to a three-tier system, which allows for fewer drivers to cover more routes,” he said, adding the change was implemented in 2019. “We are still in need, but we’re still able to operate in an efficient manner right now. If it weren’t for the dedicated drivers and monitors and office staff, it would be difficult. We recruit at a high level; we’ve offered paid training and we advertise. We’ve done everything that our counterparts are doing. It’s a tough time in our industry.”
He added that the district currently has 172 drivers on staff. To help combat the shortage, transportation office staff, mechanics and sports team coaches drive when needed, as well as mechanics and coaches.
The Superintendent of the Year Award is sponsored by AASA, The School Superintendents Association along with CoreBridge Financial and First Student to celebrates contributions and leadership of public school superintendent. This year’s four finalists were selected from 50 state superintendent award winners and are judged based on their exhibited leadership for learning, communication, professionalism and community involvement. A $10,000 college scholarship will be presented in the name of the 2023 National Superintendent of the Year to a student at a high school the winning superintendent graduated from or from the school district the winner now leads. This year’s award will be announced on Feb. 16 in San Antonio, Texas.
Tolbert explained that fostering a working relationship with transportation helps the department address the needs and concerns of all the stakeholders, including offering solutions to the nationwide driver shortage. “But our school system refuses to make excuses and does a great job of communicating our issues and we have detailed explanations as to what we’re doing to improve,” he said, citing the switch to the three-tier system as an example.
Technology-wise, Tolbert said the district is transitioning to a digital radio system, which is expected to help the department communicate faster and clearer to the drivers. “We have the capabilities of being on the same channels with EMS and fire, which is a much-needed upgrade,” he said, adding that in the past few years the district upgraded its GPS system to include the Here Comes the Bus parent app from Synovia. “We could tell how fast the driver was going, if there was harsh braking, so it helps us address safety concerns through this technology.”
He added that the addition of the parent app allows parents to set parameters to alert them, for example, when the bus is anywhere from 500 feet to two miles away from the pick-up point. “A parent can set that notification, which helps minimize the time a child is waiting at the bus stop,” he explained.
Tolbert added that another way district Superintendent Trent North understands and addresses the needs of transportation is by requesting data each month so he can monitor the department. Tolbert said data consists of bus arrival times, how many staff vacancies are there, how often training courses offered for potential drivers, and fuel costs, for example.
“Its constant information shared, so there are no surprises,” he said, adding that North likes to be proactive in receiving the information. “And he makes the transportation department be known with our drivers, monitors and with the community that this is a vital piece of the school system. We’re the first to see the kids and the last employee that the kid sees before going home. And so, he makes a big deal out of bus driver appreciation and School Bus Safety Week.”
Tolbert added that North is there at the bus lines during dismissals and is a known supporter of transportation because he understands how tough it is and shows appreciation for his staff.
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“I’ve heard the term the redheaded stepchild, and I’ve never felt that way,” he said of any condescension shown toward transportation. “As a matter of fact, I told him that that can’t be the case, and we’re not going to assume that identity. So anytime there’s a county-wide function, we make sure transportation is upfront.
He said whatever the community event is, transportation staff is there networking to attract new members to the team and sharing the district’s story. He added that two things over the past few years have stood out to him from Superintendent North’s leadership. “I keep them posted on my computer so I can reference them,” he explained. “He’s always said that executives don’t make excuses, but executives provide explanations on what happened and how we are going to improve because things will happen. That’s the nature of the beast, but don’t make excuses. Explain what’s going on and share your plan.”
He said this advice has helped change the way he thinks, and he doesn’t stress as much over situations.
“And the last one, is simply brave enough to suck at something new,” Tolbert said. “You have to take chances.”
Superintendent North added that investing in transportation employees and the fleet is a wise investment in the district’s success and future. “Families rely on us to get their children to school safely and on time,” North said.
North said he began his career as a paraprofessional before transitioning to nontraditional teacher and nontraditional administrator roles. He was the Georgia Superintendent of the Year and now a finalist for the national title. “[It] has been a tremendous honor,” he said. “Being selected to serve and represent the state as the Superintendent of the Year is an honor I could never have imagined. I have overcome many obstacles to be where I am today. Without a strong support system, my life could have ended up much differently. Only my wife and family know how many barriers I overcame to get to where I am today. I’m proud that I have overcome those obstacles and achieved this honor.
“At the time, these obstacles seemed unsurmountable,” he continued. “However, they have validated my experience even more. Together, they have solidified the importance of always putting students first. It underscores the importance of retaining a can-do attitude and implementing a powerful servant and adaptive leadership style.”