INDIANAPOLIS — When hearing the acronym ROI, short for return on investment, financial savings are most often discussed. But an STN EXPO Indianapolis session debunked that misconception, suggesting that technology can provide savings in efficiency, driver retention and student safety.
For instance, Zach McKinney, director of transportation for Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Indianapolis, stated during the session on Oct. 3 that he is seeing technology ROI from a student safety and driver retention standpoint. A happy staff keeps them showing up to work each day, he said. Plus, keeping students safe keeps parent phone calls down.
Nathan Oliver, the director of transportation for Monroe County Community School Corporation in Bloomington, Indiana agreed. Up until this school year, he explained, the district printed its route descriptions for substitute drivers. He noted that the process was cumbersome and unsafe. But now, Monroe County has a tablet system with turn-by-turn directions, which helped onboard more drivers.
On the jeopardy wheel of technology, McKinney and Oliver selected topics to discuss and how it’s played a role in their district’s ROI.
McKinney noted that unfortunately, Indiana has had several recent high-profile illegal passing incidents resulting in student fatalities. The most recent, occurred in Rochester, Indiana in 2018, when three siblings were hit and killed while attempting to board their school bus by a motorist who illegally passed on a rural road.
McKinney noted Hamilton Southeastern Schools piloted stop-arm camera technology, but because of the available options, he advised attendees to do their research. Look at what you can afford, he said, adding that enforcement of the system also plays a huge role. McKinney added that if he was going to spend money on a system, rather than a company essentially footing the bill in return for a percentage of fines, he would want to ensure that local prosecutors were willing to use the information from the camera.
At first, he explained that law enforcement was reluctant to enter an agreement with the video company, but after speaking with officers and prosecutors, they agreed to fine and prosecute the owner of the vehicle who passes a stopped school bus. While McKinney is adding the cameras incrementality into his fleet, neighboring district Noblesville Schools retrofitted all its 120 buses with stop-arm cameras.
“After someone gets a fine, will they do it again? I have no idea,” McKinney admitted.
Michael LaRocco, director of the office of school transportation at the Indiana Department of Education, commented from the audience that districts that are tracking the illegal passing violations are noting about a 50-percent reduction in illegal passings. Though, he added that it’s a small statewide sample size.
Meanwhile, Oliver added that what worked for his district was putting the message regarding stop-arm cameras on the front page of his local newspaper. Previously, the district saw 36 stop-arm violations a week across a two-and-half mile stretch of road. But after installing stop-arm cameras, his drivers report they’re not seeing the same number of violations as before.
During the height of COVID-19, Oliver said Monroe County drivers had to hand-write attendance on the school bus every day. Plus, they had to note where each child was seated for contact tracing purposes. During this past summer, he admitted, the district lost 18 drivers because they said it was too much pressure to continue doing this all by hand.
The district has since transitioned to tablets and student RFID cards, that take attendance and tell students where their seat is when they board the school bus. Health services staff also has access to the information and can pull the data for contact tracing purposes, taking that reasonability away from drivers.
Oliver noted he’s now working on recruiting those 18 drivers back. Because of switching to this new system, he said the district saw ROI on driver efficiency as well as from a financial standpoint. He noted the employee hours it took for contact tracing, and if the seating chart wasn’t fully up to date, personnel had to go through hours of video.
“What we saved in man-hours will pay for that system by the end of the year,” he said.
Eventually, Oliver said the district will be using the same RFID cards for the bus in the lunchroom, which will encourage students to keep their cards with them. With the cards, he noted the first problem transportation ran into was kids wanting their friends to scan in for them. But, he explained, with the tablets, drivers can see photos of each student as they scan on so that they can confirm who the student is and if they are on the right bus.
The school bus driver can also check-in students in manually if they forgot or lost their cards. The technology is also being used for athletic trips, which helps if there’s an accident, as Oliver can pull the student data right from his phone and send it where it needs to go, usually to law enforcement officials.
Two attendees from Laramie County School District in Wyoming asked if Oliver was receiving pushback on the RFID cards from schools or parents concerned that transportation is following and tracking a student’s every move. Michael Larson, the transportation supervisor explained that transportation for Laramie County, said he implemented RFID cards 12 years ago, but still doesn’t have 100 percent usage. He added it’s because schools and then parents have the option to opt into the technology feature.
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Oliver noted that there was a lot of community outreach before the technology went into place. His big push with parents was discussing how often students went “missing” or were unaccounted for, and parents would call wondering where the child was and what stop they got off on. Now, they can provide all that data. Once again, he advised attendees to do their own research and to find that system that works best for them.
Another aspect of RFID cards, routing and student tracking is setting up routes based on who chooses to ride the bus, which improves transportation from an efficiency standpoint.
Session moderator Derek Graham, who is also the retired North Carolina state director of public instruction, cited districts nationwide that are paying parents to drive students to school, which contradicts the proven safety record of the school bus.
“Now, districts are saying if you can get your students to school, not via the school bus, do it,” he said, adding that many districts are posting forms on their websites that basically insinuate that students aren’t getting transportation unless they ask for it.
Graham added that during the heart of the pandemic, some districts were maxing out buses at 24 students. Allowing parents to opt-in better prepares transportation staff to arrange routes and transportation for those students.
Oliver noted that his district allowed for open enrollment on the school bus. Last year, students were seated one to a seat, two if they were siblings. The decreased capacity forced the creation of another 48 routes that covered an additional 2,500 miles. Add in the fuel costs needed for those additional routes and the loss of drivers, he said, and the increased stress took its toll. But it could have been worse. Had the district assumed every student was going to ride the bus, they would have had to add another 67 routes, he noted.