HomeOperationsSuperintendent Snapshot: Texas Districts Says No Student, Department Left Behind

Superintendent Snapshot: Texas Districts Says No Student, Department Left Behind

Ahead of the Superintendent of the Year being named at the National Conference on Education in San Diego, California, School Transportation News sat down with those in charge of transportation operations at the respective districts to gain a better understanding of how the services function.

Dr. Martha Salazar-Zamora, superintendent of Tomball ISD, in Texas.

The next district profiled is Tomball Independent School District in Texas, located outside of downtown Houston, where Dr. Martha Salazar-Zamora (known across the district as Dr. Z) is the superintendent and one of the four finalists for the award being presented on Feb. 15.

Sandy Dillman has been the director of transportation at Tomball ISD for the past two and half years, and she said Salazar-Zamora and Dr. Steven Gutierrez, chief operating officer, have made themselves available at the ring of a phone call.

“If I need assistance, or I need some help, they’re there,” Dillman shared. “They’re both very concerned about the driver shortage and what we can do to improve on [it]. Dr. Z, as we call her, is always department-informed of the ongoing stuff in our district.”

Dillman shared that once a month after school board meetings, Salazar-Zamora holds collaborative administration meetings to make sure that every department is on the same page and has the correct information to pass along to parents, students and staff. “That’s something I’ve never experienced before,” Dillman said, adding that she has no reservations about calling Salazar-Zamora for help. “She will come to the drivers lounge and speak to the drivers and listen to them. She follows through with what she tells them.”

Dillman added that transportation feels supported, not just by the administration in general, but especially by Salazar-Zamora. She noted that one initiative that Salazar-Zamora implemented was allowing all students to ride the bus. “Everybody feels that they belong,” Dillman continued. “She doesn’t want anybody to feel like they’re an outsider.”

The Superintendent of the Year Award is sponsored by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, along with Corebridge Financial and First Student to celebrate contributions and leadership of public school superintendents.

 

This year’s four finalists were selected from 50 state superintendent award winners and were 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 2024 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. 15 in San Diego, California during the National Conference on Education.

That feeling of belonging permeates to all departments, staff, the surrounding community and the student population. For instance, when she was named the Texas Superintendent of the Year in September, she sent a letter to the community and staff, saying that it takes everyone on the team to make such a recognition possible.

Each spring, she types a letter to all graduating high school seniors and personally signs each one when congratulating them on their accomplishments. Dillman recalled sitting next to Salazar-Zamora at a meeting and  watching her sign letter after letter.

“She got tears in her eyes,” Dillan recalled. “It is that important to her. I wish my kids would have gotten something like that. That the superintendent actually writes the letter and then takes the time out of her busy, busy day to sign every single letter. It means something to the kids when they get it.”

COO Gutierrez added that there’s no ego with Salazar-Zamora. For example, during the first week of school in mid-August, she braved the Houston heat and humidity to deliver snow cones to the bus driver lounge. “She’s the kind of leader that can take care of the heart while also taking care of business,” Gutierrez said. “That balance [of] I care about you as a person and all members of Team Tomball are important regardless of your job or your title. And people feel that.”

Dr. Martha Salazar-Zamora (left), superintendent of Tomball ISD in Texas, celebrates breakfast served to all bus drivers.

He added that Tomball is a fast-growing district, a destination where people want to be. “Whether it be the growth of the district, Tomball is a great district, but also as an employee when you have a phenomenal leader that attracts other top talent,” Gutierrez shared. “People want to work with excellent leaders. … Attract the top talent, set expectations, understand the culture, but be the professional expert that you are in your lane to go be excellent, and you’d have her full support.”

He shared that there’s no micromanaging because each department understands the overall district goals, and the employees know what it means to be at Tomball ISD. For the past two years, transportation has won the Spirit Award at the start of the school year. Salazar-Zamora kicks off the year with a district competition and all Tomball ISD staff members attend. There’s usually a theme, and all the departments choose a song they sing.

“I’m super excited to be able to share this part of Dr. Zs adventures, this next chapter in her life,” Dillman said. “And it’s such an honor to be able to say that I work in Tomball. It’s exciting to be here on this day and work with her. I’m honored to work under her leadership. She deeply cares, not just for the students of our district. She cares for the staff, the parents. She lives here in this community, and this is her home. It is just a wonderful thing to see, and I am glad that I am part of a destination excellence and a destination district.”

Salazar-Zamora, a 37-year veteran of education and seven-year superintendent of Tomball, added that being named the Superintendent of the Year for Texas was an incredible honor. “Then to be named a finalist, representing the state of Texas again, has been very surreal,” she shared. “I’m very honored, very humbled to be considered amongst the colleagues that I’ve met recently. … I think regardless of who the judges select, they will make a good decision.”

She added that Tomball ISD had never before had a State Superintendent of the Year, so the community has been very excited and extremely supportive. She noted that she is one of only two finalists in Texas history, the other being Rod Paige in 2001. He went on to become the U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush. Salazar-Zamora is not only the first female superintendent finalist from Texas but also the first Hispanic female.

Transportation’s Impact

When asked how transportation supports district initiatives, Salazar-Zamora said the department helped develop a transportation schedule for the district’s new 70-acre Tomball Innovation Center. She noted that the lot became available after the previous tenant went bankrupt and Tomball purchased the entire facility for $37.5 million.

It contains a robotics area and a career and technical education center, where classes focus on cybersecurity, drone development, law enforcement, legal services with a full courtroom and justice of the peace. There are aviation classes for pilots to aircraft mechanics. She said the next addition will be a Texas hub for artificial intelligence.

Transportation Operations

 

Tomball ISD has total enrollment of about 23,000 students, and about 50 percent are transported to school. The district has 128 drivers, and four sub drivers, with 108 regular education routes and 33 special needs routes. The bus drivers log approximately 11,000 miles a day.

 

Even though reimbursements are limited to miles traveled for students outside of miles set by the state, the district will eat the other cost in its operation to be able to provide its families a “high level of service for transportation, just to remove one barrier for kids to getting to school,” Dr. Steven Gutierrez said.

 

Technology wise, prior to COVID-19, the district implemented a monitoring system that allows parents to log in and see the status of the bus and if it’s running late. In their new strategic direction that’s being launched this year, transportation is looking at potentially switching providers to provide a more robust system.

“But what I will tell you is we could not do that — it’s one location, we’re a fast growth district. So, we have high schools on various parts of our community, and that’s where transportation comes in,” she said, adding that transportation was instrumental in helping the district create a schedule that would allow all of the students, to and from school as well as to and from the facility, be transported so that the students could utilize the state of the art career technical center and the classes there. The Innovation Center also houses a portion of the transportation fleet, so it is not all located at the main transportation facility.

“Transportation does the daily functions that we think of which are so critical — the first people to greet our students in the morning and the last ones to see them at the end of the day,” Salazar-Zamora explained, adding that during the Holiday season, they decorate the buses. “I love the words of encouragement that our transportation department provides and just the love they have for our students and the job that they have.”

She noted many drivers are retired and have been a part of the department for years and years. “We have family members that have brought in other family members to that department. And so not only would I consider that they do the daily normal functions, but they also help us with bringing students into academies or situations such as [career technical education],” she added.


Related: Finalists for 2024 Superintendent of the Year Announced
Related: Superintendent Snapshot: Transportation, Administration Demonstrate Strong Working Relationship at Georgia District
Related: Superintendent Snapshot: Transportation ‘Critical’ to Success of Saint Paul, Minnesota Students
Related: Texas Teams Dominate Roadeo Competition Held at TSD Conference


Salazar-Zamora said that it’s the willingness of transportation to serve the students in various capacities that helps with student success. For instance, the Early College High School had a 100-percent student graduation rate. The students not only graduated with their high school diplomas but also associate degrees.

“I again credit our transportation department and their willingness to serve and their flexibility to say we can make it work,” Salazar-Zamora said. “The willingness to work schedules and have staff to do so, that’s not always easy, but they make it happen and I’m so proud.”

She added that the leader sets the tone, and she’s fortunate to work with people like Dillman, who set the tone for excellence. “I have her on my personal cell phone, I can call her at any time and say I have a problem and she will immediately respond with let’s work on a solution and then vice versa,” Salazar-Zamora said. “If she sends me a message — and we’re a growing district so imagine any director being able to message me saying I have a problem — what I will say is let’s work on a solution. It’s that collaborative spirit that helps the working relationship I have, particularly with the transportation department. I never underestimate the value and the importance of the work that they do.

“We would not be able to educate our students if they did not go to school,” she continued. “And I have many families that would not be able to transport their students and we in Tomball transport every child we do not leave anybody out regardless of how close you live to the school.”

Editor’s note — School Transportation News features a school district and superintendent finalist in the days leading up to the Feb. 15 announcement of the winner at the National Conference on Education. The final installment features Contoocook Valley School District in Peterborough, New Hampshire and Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders.

April 2024

Meet the 2024 Superintendent of the Year, Dr. Joe Gothard of Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. Learn more...

Buyer’s Guide 2024

Find the latest vehicle production data and budget reports, industry trends, and contact information for state, national and federal...

Poll

Do you feel your superintendent values the student transportation department?
126 votes
VoteResults
Advertisement