Texas transportation director Filiberto Bonilla shared improvements he’s observed in student safety and on the school bus during his almost 30-year career in pupil transportation.
When Bonilla was 27 years old in 1991, he was looking for a job that would work around his college schedule and give him more time with his family. He shared he was studying to become a licensed security guard. “Like most people, the industry pulled me in and I’m still here 29 years later and still loving it,” Bonilla said.
While he started his career as a school bus driver for Socorro Independent School District, located 20 miles east of El Paso, he’s worked at a total of six school districts throughout his career, serving as various roles in transportation. Bonilla has been both a regular and special needs school bus driver as well as a field trip clerk, Early Head Start manager, and Education Service Center 19 driver instructor, just to name a few of his positions.
He started working as the assistant director for Austin ISD before becoming the director of transportation at Hays Consolidated Independent School District (CSID) in July of 2016, where he remains.
Bonilla said he’s noticed that each school district he’s worked for takes ownership of its transportation operations. He explained that some departments provide cluster stops while others provide curb-to-curb pick-up and drop-offs. He also noticed that some districts still allow school bus drivers to take their buses home.
Yet, he explained, there are things that never change regardless of the size and location of the district. These factors are a constant need for more drivers, student management and the desire for a good relationship with school administration.
Technology Changes Throughout his Career
Bonilla’s first school bus was a 1969 IC Bus standard transmission model with a manual loading door. He shared that throughout his years in the industry, he’s had the opportunity to drive most types of school buses out there, which he’s enjoyed.
Those buses could have been equipped with anything from automated school bus routing software and student tracking software to GPS, camera systems to Wi-Fi routers. “The options you can spec a bus for today are limitless, it seems,” he added.
But with this new technology, he shared, comes both blessings and challenges.
“When I think about some technology challenges, bus video surveillance comes to mind,” he explained. “There was a time when buses were equipped with faux video camera boxes — the boxes with the red dot on top.” He even shared he had to move a VHS recorder from bus to bus.
He said transportation directors now have the ability to watch a school bus in real time from the comfort of their offices. “Technology in all aspects is something many of us are hesitant to embrace at first but are so thankful for when we actually get to see it,” he said.
Hays CSID, which started its first week of face-to-face learning on Oct.5, has embraced various school bus technology, such as student accountability systems, camera systems including stop-arm cameras, routing software and GPS.
“Technology on our school buses has made for a much safer ride for our students, as well as eased some of the typical fears drivers have of driving the school bus,” Bonilla said. “Without the technology — that we may or may not have been reluctant to buy into — our job as pupil transporters would be much more difficult.”
He said he believes that the student transportation industry “does a fantastic job in keeping up with the increasing demands on placed on [itself] in regard to technology and student safety.”
Bonilla added that student safety is always first and foremost in his department and is every transportation employee’s goal. He said great strides are being made to school bus safety industry-wide, with improvements in student tracking software to ensure students get on and off at the correct stop, LED exterior lighting on the buses so motorists see the school buses better, extended stop-arms, camera systems that monitor student and employee actions and hold passengers accountable.
“From routing to improved crossing procedures, great measures are in place,” Bonilla added.
Yet he noted he would like to see a revamped educational platform and harsher punishments for motorists who illegally pass a stopped school bus.
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“A lot of the general public simply doesn’t get what it takes to transport students to and from school safely,” Bonilla said. “There are so many variables that go into this very important task, and it can be hard to explain that to someone over the phone or in an email, who has never had any experience with the yellow school bus. I find it very rewarding to meet with parents, community members and school administrators in person. This allows me to bring the individual into our world to get them to see things from our safety mindset.”
Bonilla said he’s happy to have gotten involved with his local and state pupil transportation organizations, as they have been very rewarding personally and professionally. Bonilla has served as president of two local Association for Preservation Technology chapters, Central Texas and Sun Coast, as well as an area director and historian for the Texas Association of Pupil Transportation.
Bonilla has also helped mold school bus driver trainers while serving as a training instructor through Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service.
He hopes to continue to be the best leader he can be for his staff and school district. “To impart my 29 years of knowledge and experiences to my staff so they can be successful and advance within the industry,” he said while discussing his goals.
As far as goals for the industry as a whole goes, he hopes pupil transportation is and continues to be acknowledged by campuses and administrative personnel for the key role it fills in the education puzzle.
“I love school transportation,” Bonilla shared. “It was supposed to be a filler job while I completed school but look at me now, 29 years later. It gets in your system and as many of us say, ‘I bleed national school bus yellow.’”