Editor’s note — Since School Transportation News celebrates its 30th year in print in September, and the pearl is the traditional gift given for 30th anniversaries, throughout the year we will share stories and pearls of wisdom from student transportation professionals across North America.
“People don’t want to be told how, they want to feel like they’re part of the solution,” advised Gregory Dutton, director of transportation for Renton School District #403 in Washington state. “So with transportation today, it’s really important to not only communicate but to communicate the ‘why.’ Why things are placed here and why we do things the way we do.”
Dutton explained that over 20 years ago, someone once told him, “To those that are unimportant we tell how. And, and to those that are important, we tell why.” He said that quote has stuck with him throughout his professional and personal life.
He said that for instance, many school bus drivers today seek to know the why, in addition to the procedures in place that explain the how of transporting students. He added the same advice can be carried throughout his personal life. For example, he continuously told his daughter to load the dishwasher a certain way, but only when he explained the benefits of saving money running it the way he wanted, did she listen.
He added that at the end of the day, pupil transportation is about customer service. The more customer service skills one has, the better they learn to interact with people and show empathy.
Dutton said that some school bus drivers are stuck in their old ways of transporting students, taking on a “My way or the highway mentality.” However, he shared that mentality is often unsuccessful in communicating with the students. Instead, he advises that drivers reach out to students and take an “I’m here to serve you and keep you safe approach,” so students are more likely to engage back.
Dutton said that one of his most influential mentors is a former transportation director, Jim Garhart. He said Garhart gave him a laminated inscribed card with the phrase “Model of A Leader,” which he still has to this day.
“It says on here, ‘A leader gives credit, a manager gives blame. A leader values people, a manager values procedures,’” Dutton shared. “And so, every now and then I will pull that out just to look at it as a reminder of what I’m here to do: to be a leader and not a manager.”
Dutton Throughout His Career
After graduating with a degree in telecommunications from Texas Tech University in his home state, Dutton sought to find work in broadcasting. By July 1993, he found himself almost 4,000 miles away as a video producer at North Slope Borough School District in Utqiaġvik, Alaska.
“I thought I was just going to go to Alaska and work this 246-day contract and that was going to be it, and then [I would] figure out something else to do,” Dutton said. “You could see how that turned out.”
His tenure turned into six years. After North Slope, he went to work at a telecommunications company in Anchorage, where he later managed all the company’s services for schools.
After 13 years in Alaska, he moved to the Seattle area with the same private telecommunications company. Two years later, in 2008, his wife Michelle, who he had met in Alaska, was having health issues. Dutton said he quit his job to help support her.
Then, he said, the recession hit. He kept seeing jobs posted at his local school district, Snoqualmie Valley, looking for school bus drivers. He started as a substitute school bus driver in March 2010 and eventually got his own route. He continued to work at the district, soon becoming a router. However, after a couple of years, he left the workforce again to start his own company with Michelle.
Despite leaving the industry, Dutton returned to pupil transportation. It was in 2019 that he became the assistant director of transportation at Renton and eventually became the director.
Dutton shared one of the biggest challenges he faces currently is the high-speed adoption of technology. He noted there are so many solutions to choose from, especially coming out of COVID-19 — seatbelt monitoring technology, video, temperature systems, etc.
“One of the challenges today is really trying to figure out how to get all of these systems to work together because they obviously save lots of time,” Dutton explained. “But if you’re having to spend a lot of time making them all work together, then you’re not really saving.”
He added that Renton currently uses Versatrans, the routing platform from Tyler Technologies. All of the district’s 115 school buses are also equipped with onboard tablets that help with GPS and fleet telematics, as well as video cameras.
Related: FCC Approves School Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots Under COVID-19 Emergency Connectivity Fund
Related: U.S. Senate Bill Seeks Expanded School Bus Wi-Fi
Related: How Student Transporters Should Adjust to Changing Tech Trends
However, Dutton explained that GPS is currently running on Verizon 3G, which is expected to be phased out of use in 2022. When updating hardware to work with 4G or 5G cellular, he noted that he’s curious to know if all the technology will still work together.
Plus, choosing what technology to purchase going forward – and what buses to put it on – remains a challenge.
“On all of our large buses that we purchase going forward, I’m requiring them to have the external camera system, [that gives you the] 360-degree view around the bus,” Dutton said. “I feel there’s more value to that than a traditional backup camera.”
Dutton added that Renton is also starting to have conversations about seatbelts, not only with the administration but also with his 100 school bus drivers.
“Many drivers thought it would be a great idea for student management and behavior issues,” he said. “And of course, some have concerns as [they believe] it can cause an increase in student loading and unloading times.”
One positive coming out of the pandemic, he shared, was that technology allows his staff to communicate better. He added that prior to COVID-19, only 25 percent of the district’s drivers accessed their school email, but now almost all of his drivers can join a video conference call with no problem.
“I’m amazed at how adept and how willing our drivers are to embrace new technologies for communicating,” Dutton said.
Going forward, he said he is going to continue to focus on safety and driver training. He hopes to improve the data going into the routing system, and eventually get that information back into the hands of parents so they can also access the bus route and when their students’ bus will be arriving.
When asked what keeps him coming back to the industry, Dutton shared it’s the fact that he truly loves his job.
“I think transportation presents a unique set of challenges that make each day somewhat unique,” Dutton said. “Whether it’s trying to come up with creative solutions for driver shortages or trying to determine best practices with technology and improving overall safety and safety awareness and professional development with our drivers.”
Related: Return to In-Person Classes Possible with Safety Precautions, Says Washington Governor
Related: Washington State School Districts Receive Flexibility in Use of Transportation Funds
Related: Washington Transportation Director Power Lifts District to New Heights
He noted that one of the most important things a leader in pupil transportation can do is recognize when people are doing a good job.
“One of our most important resources in transportation is that human capital,” Dutton said. “… I have staff who are in here every day. And despite it being an incredibly difficult job and the challenges of remaining focused, being safety conscious and all of the things [bus drivers] have to focus on and all the procedures, they’re doing a fantastic job. At the end of the day, I’m just lucky to be part of that team.”