Ahead of the 2024 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 four represented school districts to gain a better understanding of how the services function.
We start with Saint Paul Public Schools in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where Dr. Joe Gothard is the superintendent and one of four finalists for the award being presented on Feb. 15.
Saint Paul Public Schools contracts out most of its transportation to First Student, while also employing 35 drivers in-house that primarly handle the district’s transportation of students with Individualized Education Programs. However, contractors also serve some additional special education routes. With 245 contracted bus drivers and another 120 contracted van drivers, the district has a total of 730 morning and afternoon routes, transporting more than 23,400 students daily.
Transportation Director Ben Harri explained that the district contracts with seven companies, but First Student is responsible for a little less than half of all routes. The other six companies are local vendors. Harri said he’s been at St. Paul for the past five years, starting as the distribution manager. He became the director of transportation two years ago.
Gothard has been the superintendent for the district since July 2017 and said transportation has been a major topic of conversation among district families, students and the school board in recent years.
One initiative that has been a district focus is getting high school students back on yellow school buses following the COVID-19 pandemic. “While most of our schools are served by yellow buses, a bus driver shortage forced us to transition to offering public transit passes for some of our large high schools in 2021,” Gothard explained. “Federal funding from the American Rescue Plan allowed us to offer incentives and higher pay in an effort to build our driver workforce back up to pre-pandemic levels.”
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.
Harri said Saint Paul has been able to secure additional drivers through those momentary investments to bring all high schools that had transited to public transit back on to the yellow bus service last month.
Harri said they heard concerns from community members regarding the safety of putting students on transit. “[The] yellow bus service is a much safer option for their kids,” Harri said. “And so we’ve listened to their feedback and made an effort to get those bus drivers back.”
The district is also issuing a Request for Proposals for an enhanced parent app. He said the current app used is updated manually when bus drivers inform dispatch that they’re running late. Additionally, Saint Paul is receiving 10 electric school buses through its partnership with First Student from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Clean School Bus Program. Those buses will be used on routes starting with the 2025-2026 school year.
Relationship with Administration, Transportation
Gothard said that transportation is one of the most critical services that a public school district provides for impacting student success. “Year after year, buses consistently come up as one of the reasons that families pick schools and, if the service is not working well, one of the reasons they may choose to leave,” he said. “As we are making decisions about schools and programming, it is essential that school district leaders include transportation availability and accessibility as a key part of the equation.”
Harri noted that like with any job, support from one’s supervisor or administration is key. “They have ideas or initiatives or things that they want, you do too and to move those things forward, you work together,” he said.
Harri said Gothard has a strong understanding of transportation. For example, Harri noted the district recently opened an East African magnet school, which brings more students into the district. Transportation helps route students, those who live within district boundaries or not, to attend that new school.
“If you support them, they support you,” he said. “And that’s what they’ve done. My supervisor and Dr. Gotthard have always supported me throughout the two years that I’ve been in this position.”
Gothard noted that it’s essential for transportation to have a seat at the table when school decisions are made. “We know from experience that participation in after-school programs, athletics and other extracurriculars is directly impacted by the availability (or lack thereof) of transportation,” he said. “In order for students to take advantage of the many opportunities that our schools have to offer, we have to make it easy, convenient and safe for them to get there.”
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Extreme winter weather is an obvious annual challenge, Gothard shared. One of the major factors on calling off school, he explained, is whether buses can safely transport students to and from school.
“Our drivers have the safety of our students in their hands every day, and I know they don’t take that responsibility for granted,” he said. “Bus and van drivers are the first person that students see in the morning, and the last person they see before they get home. I am so appreciative of their skills, their compassion and their dedication not only to transporting students, but for the positive impact they have on students’ and families’ lives every day.”
Harri noted that Gothard being named a finalist for the AASA SOY award reflects well on the entire district.
“To say I am humbled to be a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year would be a huge understatement,” Gothard added. “When I began my education career as a paraprofessional in my home district in Wisconsin [Madison Metropolitan School District], I certainly could not picture being where I am today. I owe this recognition to so many mentors and colleagues who challenged, pushed and inspired me to do more and to help students like me find their way. While my name appears on the list of finalists, there are so many more exceptional educators and leaders who deserve to be recognized for all that they do for Saint Paul’s 33,000 students every day.”
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. Next up is Dublin City Schools in Georgia and Superintendent Frederick Williams.