FRISCO, Texas — Teresa Fleming joins the list of transportation directors recognized as the magazine’s director of the year, this year sitting on a panel with Jennifer Vobis and Kayne Smith.
Fleming, the deputy chief operations officer for the School District of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and reigning Transportation Director of the Year, explained that while she’s been in transportation for over 20 years, she started with the global logistics and corporate side of operations. In 2016, she joined the district as a data analyst.
Fleming added that the district has 900 yellow bus routes, 70 percent of which service students with special needs. The district operates about 9 percent of its operations in-house, contracting out the other 90-plus percent to various providers. Meanwhile, Vobis, the executive of director of transportation for Clark County School District in Nevada and the 2022 Transportation Director of the Year, started her career working in the classroom as a fifth-grade teacher. She eventually became the special education director before becoming the director of transportation.
Clark County utilizes 1,935 school buses, 60 percent of which transport students with special needs.
Smith, the director of transportation for Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, Texas, started his career as a school bus driver, working his way through the ranks. He was the 2022 Transportation Director of the Year.
He noted that last spring he wanted to make a larger investment in special education and hired a new employee into the transportation operations who had a special education background. Cy-Fair ISD runs 1,028 school buses, 180 of which are special education routes.
Fleming noted that engaging stakeholders early on is key when transporting the industry’s most vulnerable population. She said transportation is always requesting information regarding students, which has led to a positive relationship being developed with their special education team. The positive relationship has led to transportation being more involved in the Individual Education Programs.
In terms of parent communication, she said her approach is always to be transparent with parents to build those relationships. This, in turn, fosters trust in the parents that transportation is doing the safest thing for their children.
Vobis said she already had a relationship with the special education department since she used to work there, which she noted is an advantage. She added, however, that without a relationship between the two departments, nothing will get done.
Smith advised working with school principals. Something he said he has found helpful is inviting the principals to the transportation department and establishing a relationship with them in that way. Principals meet on a regular bias, he explained, and transportation needs to be part of that. Bringing them to the table allows for more open communication, he added.
When considering parent and driver communication, Vobis said tablets can push notifications to parents. Plus, transportation personnel can communicate with the bus drivers more efficiently, since they can send out district emails. Additionally, she added that a big focus of professional development this school year is customer service, which starts with how transportation personnel treat each other.
Smith noted that at the start of the new school year when drivers are doing dry runs, driver and attendant teams will go door to door and introduce themselves to parents. If the route changes, he said, the new driver and attendant make return visits to each household.
“Regardless of our size, we try to make that personal connection,” he said.
Navigating Staff Shortages, Increase in Students Requesting IEPs
Fleming said one thing Philadelphia district officials did this year to help with the staff shortages was examining its total number of drivers – contracted and in-house – and providing that number to the routers. This ensured the routers knew the number of routes that couldn’t be exceeded. Additionally, her in-house operation has extra drivers and buses on staff in case one of her contractors falls short.
Smith noted that on any given day his operation is short 150 to 170 positions. Being a school bus purist his whole professional life, he said he has realized it is time to look at alternative transportation options to help transport students, especially those served by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Vobis, however, said she believes that students are better and more safely transported in a school bus. With that being said, the district leverages its white fleet and smaller yellow vehicles to help offset the shortage. However, she noted that Clark County is currently only short about 50 drivers, compared to three times that amount a couple of years ago. She explained that it took a couple of solutions to bridge that gap. The first, she explained, was looking at the salaries of different driving positions around the Las Vegas area and reclassifying its drivers to be competitive with those driving positions.
Related: School Psychologist Highlights Behavior Management Training for Students with Special Needs
Related: TSD Foundation Class Provides Basics to Transporting Students with Special Needs
Related: Fleming Latest Add to Impressive List of Transportation Leaders
Related: School District of Philadelphia Focuses on Employee Recognition
Additionally, Vobis started utilizing the city’s public transit system for high school students who lived close to a bus stop. Clark County paid for a transit pass for the students, which provides the teenagers with more flexibility and independence as they can use the passes after school hours, to and from work and on the weekends.
When discussing students with special needs and the impact of an increased number of students requesting transportation services, Fleming said the School District of Philadelphia has looked at route consolidation and efficiency, ultimately requiring transportation request more funding.
Currently, she said, the district is only tiering yellow bus service, but her department is looking at tiering other transportation services that are offered.
Smith added that his staff, too, is facing significant budget shortfalls over the years. He said that since COVID-19, daily attendance has dropped, which is how the district is paid by the state. One way to combat the funding shortage, he said, was moving from a three- to a four-tier system. “We knew budget cuts and driver shortage wouldn’t go away,” he said, adding that the increase in tiering helped cut bus routes and ultimately save money.
Vobis added that when athletic teams or other departments ask for something to be done in transportation, such as more drivers for athletic events, she talks to the CFO about it being a shared cost with that department. That way it’s not all falling on transportation to pick up the check.
Smith agreed, adding that his transportation operation doesn’t say “no,” but instead asks for more resources, or what services should be cut to accommodate the new request.