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Washington Transportation Director Power Lifts District to New Heights

Dawnett Wright is every bit of an extremely successful student transporter as she is a winning extreme athlete.

In 2016, Wright attained the Spartan Race Trifecta, which is an exclusive distinction earned after finishing three different series of the obstacle races that vary in distance and difficulty. One must complete a 5K sprint, or Stadion, that features 20 obstacles. Then, there is the 10K Super and 25 obstacles. Finally, a one-half marathon distance Beast or 50K Ultra awaits. All must be completed by a certain date each year.

She also won the 2001 Driver of the Year award from the California Four Wheel Drive Association. When she’s not running a district’s transportation office, you can find her performing CrossFit, a strength and conditioning program consisting of a mix of aerobic exercise, calisthenics, and Olympic weightlifting.

In the midst of all her experiences, she’s carved out an accomplished career in school busing.

Late last year, University Place School District near Seattle recognized Dawnett Wright for her feats in the weight room as well as leading the district’s transportation operations.

Wright’s journey began at 18 years old when she joined the U.S. Air Force. She drove trucks and buses for a transportation unit and worked in the office. When she was honorably discharged from the Air Force in 1992, becoming a school bus driver was an easy transition for her.

At the time, Wright was a young mother of two girls. A school bus driver position appealed to her because it gave her, weekends and holidays off to spend with her children. As her daughters Jessica and Shiann reached school age, they were allowed to ride the bus with her to school and back home every day.

“I got to know their teachers and all of their friends and not allow them to get away with anything,” Wright explained. “I was really lucky in the fact that my kids didn’t take a field trip that I didn’t get to go on because I was their bus driver. It just really allowed me to be a bigger part of their life.”

Wright said that as her girls grew up and didn’t need her as much anymore, she was able to turn her school bus driving job into a career.

Dawnett Wright with daughters Jessica, center, and Shiann.

Wright has held every job in a school district imaginable, including sub driver, school bus driver, router, dispatcher, driver instructor, training department manager, and transportation supervisor.

While she started her career in California, she moved to Washington state nine years ago and currently serves as the transportation director at University Place School District, located 40 miles south of Seattle.

“I have a little bit of diverse knowledge and background when it comes to the industry, having worked in the two different states,” Wright added.

Biggest Operational Change

While diesel was mostly the fuel of choice throughout her career, Wright said different challenges started to present themselves in 2006 with the addition of the diesel particulate filters. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated its diesel emissions standards in 2010 to add diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) to drastically reduce soot and oxides of nitrogen emissions, diesel became even more complicated.

“Propane hasn’t had those changes, it’s stayed pretty consistent,” Wright explained. “It’s a cleaner fuel with a simple catallactic exhaust system, just like the family suburban.”

Wright said she has helped her current and previous districts, University Place School District and Puget Sound Educational Service District in Renton, Washington, respectively, receive numerous grants to improve diesel pollution by replacing old diesel buses with new cleaner running propane buses.

She added that she is continuing to see more of her peers shy away from diesel engines due to all the regulatory changes that have increased costs and maintenance requirements.

Currently, her fleet is 37 percent propane and 63 percent diesel. However, in spring 2021 the district is scheduled to receive its first electric school bus. The only district to operate an electric school bus so far in the state is Franklin Pierce School District in Parkland, Washington.

Wright said she is talking with the staff there to figure out what routes the bus works the best on and how the bus will run in colder weather conditions.

Other operational changes that Wright has experienced throughout her career include the response of parents when called about their student’s behavior, both of which have become more negative in recent years, and the requirements the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act places on school district transportation services.

“While there is a great benefit to that program and a necessary program. It puts a lot of constraints on the transportation department, on the entire school district I am sure, but on the transportation department it puts huge constraints on us and has been a huge challenge to work around as well,” she explained.

Wright said while the district tries very hard to keep all students in yellow school buses, it’s not feasible in all cases and some students are in contracted services.


Related: Impact of McKinney-Vento, Every Student Succeeds Act Depends on District
Related: Washington State School Bus Driver Rescues Child Following Carjacking
Related: Washington School District Acquires State’s First All-Electric School Bus
Related: Retiring Washington State Student Transporter Hahn Leaves on ‘High Note’


Biggest Technological Change

Wright said her district has installed GPS, launched a parent app and equipped all school buses with cameras.

“Any tool that we can give to parents that helps them know where their precious cargo is at makes our life easier,” Wright shared when discussing the parent app. “We have seen a huge reduction in phone calls into our transportation office, since the implementation of our parent app.”

She said even the high school-aged students will download it on their cell phones to receive a push notification when the bus is within two minutes of their stop, so they know when to go outside. That can be a big benefit in Washington’s inclement winter weather.

The transportation staff at University Place School District in Washington.

She said routing software has also significantly changed the transportation game. Wright said that when she first entered the industry, she posted maps on a wall and marked the different routes with colored pens. Today, she use the routing software to print out route sheets, and using GPS allows her team to follow the route in real-time and help the drivers, if needed.

But, she pointed out, technology doesn’t replace human analysis.

“You still have to have somebody look at that information and know whether or not it’s right or wrong when it comes out. Whether or not a bus can actually travel on that road, or if it really is a right turn and not that the road makes a 70-degree arch and it’s telling you it’s a right turn,” she added.

To combat this issue, Wright said her drivers perform dry runs of routes prior to the first day of school. That way, she said, they can ensure that they have good route information.

“There is also the element of every student has a cell phone now. So, if there is an incident on your school bus, it’s going to take 2.5 seconds for that incident to be on [social media],” Wright said. “And it’s only going to be their perspective and what they want their parents or their friends to see. So that makes us extremely lucky to have video cameras on all of the buses.”

Wright said the cameras allow the district to determine the full story of what happened and to take necessary steps to rectify situations and notify appropriate personnel, depending on the incident.

“You really have to embrace technology and when there is a new piece of technology out there, take the time to look at it, and take the time to see what benefits it can have,” Wright advised. “You just can’t be afraid of the future; you have to let it help you.”

Dawnett Wright, transportation director at University Place School District in Washington, shows off her office.

Going forward, Wright said she would like to see the industry continue to lower its carbon footprint. She wants to continue to mentor incoming leadership and do all she can to help keep kids safe.

Throughout her 28 years in the industry, she served as the Chapter 12 president for the California Association of School Transportation Officials and sat on the state board. She also completed the California Department of Education Bus Driver Instructor Certification Course.

For the past three years, she has served on the state board in Washington. She also completed the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction School Bus Driver Instructor Training Course and the Central Washington University Pupil Transportation Management Training Program.

When asked what keeps her in the industry Wright said, “Knowing that I can have an effect on the future safety for our kids. Knowing that I can be a part of that, I can help lawmakers, I can help School Transportation News and the National Association of Pupil Transportation. I go to all the conferences and I do everything I can. I hope to one day play on a national level so that I can truly have a voice and an effect on the future of safe transportation for our students.”

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