FRISCO, Texas – A Saturday panel of transportation managers discussed leveraging routing technology for more efficient and comprehensive transportation at the TSD Conference.
Zach Moren, sales enablement manager for session sponsor Transfinder, began by acknowledging that technology is a big investment, not only in terms of money but also in time. The panelists, however, showed how that investment has assisted their operations, including special needs routes.
Transportation Manager Amy Tiedens shared that this was Minnesota District 287’s second year using Transfinder Plus. “I was just using Google spreadsheets and I’ve being doing that since I started with the district in 2010,” she revealed.
Transfinder helped her customize routes, add necessary data and set up automatic daily reports so district staff like coordinators, teachers and principals can easily receive the information instead of having to contact the transportation department.
“Routes change almost daily, so it’s helpful for them to have that info right in front of them,” Tiedens confirmed. “It helps with time management and cuts down on calls that we get.”
District 287 uses Transfinder successfully with its three transportation contractors and was even able to cut five routes, she said. Drivers can be scheduled through the system, which tracks their schedules and does not allow double booking.
“You can use a lot of humans, but technology is cheaper.”
-Cody Cox, Director of Transportation, Fleet & Custodial Services, Cleveland Independent School District (Texas)
Meanwhile, Cody Cox, the director of transportation, fleet and custodial services for Cleveland Independent School District near Huston, Texas, said his district uploads information from student IEPs into the Transfinder system they use, which drivers can access via tablet.
“We have about 150-200 students with special needs to transport,” shared Cox. “If someone gets moved to a new bus it’s easy to familiarize the drivers with the student’s information quickly. Especially with special needs, that’s been really helpful for us.”
The Human Angle
Cox pointed out that systems like Transfinder help transportation departments work smarter, not harder. The district is paperless, and drivers can leverage electronic signatures required for Medicaid reimbursements to cut down on inefficiency and manpower.
“You can use a lot of humans, but technology is cheaper,” he commented. Moren agreed, adding that using technology helps automate processes and saves everyone time.
The panelists agreed that having modern technology also helps make drivers’ jobs easier and may help with retention in the driver shortage.
“Instead of having to dig through binders or hear everything over the radio, drivers can quickly access information in case of an emergency,” Cox pointed out.
“With so many driver shortages, we need to be aware of driver retention and what factors can help with that. Dealing with a binder can add to the challenge,” Moran underscored.
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An attendee questioned how older bus drivers adjust to the new technology. Cox said the shift takes time and is not easy but can be done if integrated with company culture and made part of district policies and procedures.
“It’s culture and its training, training, training,” he stressed. “We have a zero-tolerance policy. We don’t let a child ride the bus if they’re not on the tablet for safety purposes. We need to know where the kids are.”
Tiedens recognized that many times people don’t want to make changes. “We explained before the change took place that it would be a learning curve and that training would be provided,” she explained.
Being a skeptic herself, she said that she did her research while asking many questions to determine if Transfinder could help with District 287’s unique needs. “Communicate your needs and make sure the software can meet them,” she advised.
Cox explained the importance of vetting the technology that’s being provided to staff. “Look at the interface, make sure it’s intuitive for the driver,” he said. “Look for technology that’s easy to handle. There are a lot of companies out there, so do your research and look for ones that are user-friendly.”
Moran added that technology can simplify operations, “but it can also make things more difficult. Be realistic and find ways to find something you can adopt easily.”
“With so many driver shortages, we need to be aware of driver retention and what factors can help with that.”
-Zach Moren, Sales Enablement Manager, Transfinder
In answer to an attendee question on the ability of Transfinder to build routes accurately, Cox repeated that the district or contractor staff must still drive and “audit” the routes. “There is no routing program that can do that for you, that takes a human being,” he confirmed.
Josh Schiffler, owner of contractor Crosby-Ironton Transportation, which serves rural Minnesota, who was also on the panel shared that he still drives the routes created through Transfinder to see how much time is needed to complete them. Tiedens added that the software allows for adding information and fine-tuning routes.
“A software solution is not a one-time solution, especially with students with disabilities,” Moran stressed. “We need people to bring their local knowledge to integrate with technology.”
Putting the Pieces Together
Both Cox and Tiedens praised Transfinder’s ability to rapidly sync information including updates to student information and transportation staff changes to school bus routes.
“If kids are enrolled in the morning, they can ride the bus home, so we need to have a quick turnaround of putting enrollment information into the routing program and then it pushes the information into the [driver’s] tablet,” Cox explained. “Ours syncs in the morning and then again at night; if changes have been made by routers in the afternoon, then they will show up the next morning.”
Transfinder also comes in handy when it comes time to make summer school routes. “Districts wait till the last minute to determine who is going to summer school based on grades, which means we only have a couple days to route everything. All my staff has to do is push a button to switch to summer school databases,” Cox revealed. “It makes things really smooth.”
“Some of our big[gest] challenges are related to distance,” shared Schiffler. For example, one district client covers 325 square miles and has 1,100 students.
The company implemented Transfinder’s parent app Stopfinder three years ago to show parents what buses their children are on, bus stop arrival times and changes in schedules. It also uses the app to communicate about early dismissal and school closures.
Cox noted that when Cleveland ISD implemented the bus tracking apps, parents initially pushed back. “But the parents eventually bought in to centralized information. “It cuts down on phone calls to us. We can’t keep up with 12,000 parents calling, it’s not physically possible.”
Schiffler concurred that it took a concerted effort from the district to encourage parents to use the Stopfinder app. “We tell them that’s where they can get the information, that’s how we communicate,” he said.
Specific to McKinney-Vento transportation for unhoused students, Cox said that a liaison makes sure addresses are updated so transportation knows where to pick up the student.
“It helps with time management and cuts down on calls that we get.”
-Amy Tiedens, Transportation Manager, District 287 (Minnesota)
Transfinder offers a suite of technology products to help bus operations become more efficient. Crosby-Ironton Transportation also uses ServiceFinder for maintenance and TripFinder for field trips. “A one stop solution is the direction we’d like to go,” Schiffler confirmed.
Moran added that districts do not have to purchase the whole Transfinder suite at once but can add the pieces they need one by one and see what works for them.
“Nowadays you can buy just one solution or use different things – the world is evolving,” Cox reflected. “Really do your research and don’t just jump in. If you can find one solution that handles everything, that is helpful. Think about the future too [and] what will be easy to use moving forward.”