The April print edition of School Transportation News profiles the relationship of Dr. Edgar Hatrick, superintendent of Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools and the current president of the American Association of School Administrators, and the transportation department.
In this month's Web Exclusive, STN Editor in Chief Ryan Gray sat down with Hatrick at the AASA's National Conference on Education in Denver in February. Hatrick spoke at great length about how transportation works in Loudoun County. Here is an excerpt of their conversation, starting with the topic of lap/shoulder belts on the district's school buses, a program that began in Loudoun County in 2008.
How was the decision made to equip school buses with lap/shouder seat belts?
"We’ve been talking about seat belts I’ve been superintendent for 20 years, and we’ve been talking about seat belts for at least the 15 of those 20 years. For a long time, the evidence was very inconclusive from NHTSA if seat belts were a good idea because of compartmentalization. Then NHTSA changed its mind and started recommending them. We had already been getting comments from the public about why don’t you have seat belts on school buses. The school board was OK with. It added costs to the buses, they knew that. Transportation was right at center of helping ascertain if it was a good idea to put seat belts on school buses or not. Years ago there were a whole bunch of concerns with safety, how kids would use them.That all changed. It was when the three-point belt became available that our transportation staff said, 'OK, Doc, this is really something we need to look at. We’re thinking this could be the kind of restraint that can make a difference.' I think it was with that determination that we got really serious about looking at and including seat belts.
The school board and public were great. From an emotional standpoint they’ve been wondering for years. We teach everyone to buckle up. It was a natural transition for us, but at the heart of that transition was our trans department because, ultimately, those are the people I look to and the school board looks to to tell us how we keep children safe. That’s what it’s all about. Efficiency in transportation is important, but safety absolutely wins the day. And, so, if it becomes clear that you do something to make the ride safer, we’re going to do it. We’re going to find a way fund it."
So how is the seat belt program doing in 2011?
"It’s going fine. I don’t hear any complaints from our transportation folks. I don’t hear any complaints from principals that they’re dealing with discipline issues vis-a-vis seat belts."
What about budget-wise?
"It’s now part of the cost of buying a bus. We’re getting air conditioning on more and more buses. At one time we were limited in only using A/C for buses for kids with disabilities. But more and more we’re including [AC on all buses]. We’re using tinted glass on buses to keep down the outside heat factor. All of this adds to the cost of the bus. If you put in the internal cameras, which we do on all of our buses, that adds a cost. But in the long run if you amortize that cost over the life of the bus it’s worth the price. It’s just worked through our budget. We actually use a lease-to-purchase arrangement, and we did that because we were falling behind in our replacement cycle. We were just paying cash outright. So we took advantage of a leasing arrangement. We now take five years to pay for a bus like you would a car. It enables us to keep the turnover of buses where we want it to be."
How does the transportation budget process work?
"The department of transportation is in the support services division. I have an assistant superintendent [Jeff Platenberg], and he presents the proposed budget for his whole department, including transportation. We actually have what amounts to an enterprise fund for the operation of our bus garage because we provide fleet services not only for all of our buses but for all the county vehicles as well. So we service all of the sheriff’s vehicles. We all pay for the services we get. When a bus goes in to get serviced and to be inspected, we pay an hourly fee just like the county does. Those fees then are used to operate the garage side of the operation. The bus drivers and all the personnel who are needed for transportation are all included in the operation budget along with the fuel, repairs and everything else. We’re very dependent on the transportation department. That’s where the expertise is. I wouldn’t ask the transportation department to tell me what the English department budget should be. And I wouldn’t ask the English department to dictate what the transportation dept budget should be. It’s a huge operation."
What is the school board approval process for transportation budgets?
"For example, our buses are on a 15-year replacement cycle. This is why we have the budget process we do. Before I present the budget to the school board, all budget holders go through budget process two-step. Each department has to present their budget to each assistant superintendent. Then, the assistant supers decide what they will bring it to me and I’m kind of like the school board will be. I’m asking a lot of questions. I have to be convinced to include it in my budget. Once I’m convinced, I’m committed and their project becomes my project. And we go forth together. But that's not the last stop. We have to go to the board of supervisors to get funding. The controversy right now is we have supervisors who think they know transportation better than we do. They want to get into bus routes. So it’s a constant education process because somebody will see a bus with a few kids on it and they’ll say, 'Well that’s a waste!" What they don’t realize is that bus just dropped off 50 kids at one school it’s now carrying five more to another school. Or it’s already made two runs in the morning already, and it’s then gone back to do a pick up other kids. We’re forever examining all of our bus routes for the greatest efficiency possible because transportation is expensive component of our school operation. It’s one where safety comes first but expense has to come second. We really want to be sure we are operating as efficiently as we can, as long as we are keeping the kids safe. I serve a large rural area as well as suburban areas. We have different concerns in rural area. No side walks, no natural gathering places for kids to wait for bus so a lot of rural busing. "
Do you have personal concerns when it comes to transportation?
"Being sure that we have the most efficient routing system we can have. I remember the days we did routes by hand. People knew every road in Loudoun County. Those days are gone, so we have to rely on computerized routing. But there's still human interaction. We have a lot of dirt roads in the rural part of the county. I don’t worry a lot about transportation because we have such a strong transportation department, and we have relied on transportation the entire 20 years I’ve been superintendent. I do worry about child safety. For snow days, I'm on the phone with the transportation director at 4:30 a.m. Loudoun is fortunate this year that we were only out five days. Last year was 'Snowmaggedon.' It takes a whole team effort. I met with the lead drivers and Al [Hampton, the transportation director], making decisions on realistically would we be able to open the rest of the week? When we were ready to open we had to know that the maintenance people had done everything they could do and the highway people did everything they could do to be as safe as can be. I think if there is anything that concerns me about transportation it is student safety. Nobody wants to have a bus go in a ditch, children hurt, heaven forbid children die as a result of the transportation program."
What's your opinion of school buses as possible extension of classroom learning?
“I have mixed feelings about it. Kids have got to have some down time, and I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with the kid who’s on a long bus ride just having some time to do some pleasurable reading, to visiting with friends. They’re going to have a pretty intense day once they get to us. I’m not opposed to it but I wouldn’t want to see it just become an extension of the school day. As much as I love school buses, they are not a good classroom environment. Kids just need time to socialize. We need it (has friends on metro to work reading newspaper, napping, listening to music…others work the whole time). But all kids are not the same.”
What's your view on how the recession has affected education?
“I certainly hope there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that it’s not the train. The mood in America, unfortunately, and I think this doesn’t get helped by our secretary of Education or our president, is to bash public education. It continues to be a good story; so many indicators of success get missed. In society it’s an expensive process. If you just looking at public education from a financial stand point you have a different lens on then if you look at public education as a foundation of our democracy. Do away with it and you won’t have America. We can’t succeed without a strong educational system. Kids need to be supported, teachers need to be supported. We’re no longer satisfied with kids not graduation from high school. And we shouldn’t be."
What is the role of school buses and transportation, in general, in providing reliable education to children?
“There has to be a reliable safe transportation system to get kids to and from school. I think the way the digital age is moving we will reach a point where we have wifi o nour buses and a way for kids to download help for their homework.” Ipods, i pads. least common denominator trouble? Index for kids something kids can listen to “and maybe the light will go on.” “We forget a lot of times just how rural most of America is. Most of the kids may not live in rural district but most of America is rural. In those areas where kids are literally spending an hour each way the bus each day, they’re certainly looking for ways to use that time more efficiently. One of the ways I’ve heard about is mobile WiFi so kids that have lap-top devices can take advantage of that while they’re riding the roads 50 miles to get home."