There’s a 50-plus year-old map of the Lewiston Public School District in Maine that Alisa Roman keeps in her office.
“I save it for fun,” said Roman. “It’s a map from the ’70s and how they did busing. And it’s Sharpie dots on the map. And they drew lines. There are towns on there that don’t even exist. It’s a little history lesson.”
Today the district is light years ahead, thanks in part, to work Roman has done as one of the key drivers to modernize the district’s transportation operation.
But she admits it was “daunting” when she took over three years ago as transportation director at Lewiston Public Schools, a district that transports some 2,000 students. The transportation coordinator had retired so the department was losing someone with strong institutional knowledge. And at the same time, the district wasn’t using routing software to its fullest.
“We did not have Transfinder’s Routefinder fully up and running in our district at that point,” she said. “It is daunting when you’re taking on a role like that and also incorporating software.”
Transfinder has the contract for the entire state of Maine’s 117 school districts. Beginning in October 2021, districts using Transfinder’s Routefinder Pro routing software were working toward upgrading to Transfinder’s award-winning browser-based routing solution, Routefinder PLUS.
To add to these challenges, Roman already had a leadership post in the school as director of nutrition. She attended the highly regarded Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, graduating with management degrees in baking and pastry.
Those degrees equipped her for posts in food service at Binghamton University and Colby College in Maine before eventually coming to Lewiston Public Schools.
Today, Roman has two distinctive roles as the director of nutrition and transportation. As an aside, she’s quick to dispel negative stereotypes about school lunches.
“Anything you put on a plastic tray, it’s hard to upsell that. But I think school lunches get a bad rap,” she said. “I will eat them when given the opportunity.”
Searching for the Right Recipe
After transportation director was added to her title, Roman started looking for the right recipe to best serve her community using Transfinder’s transportation management software. She attended a two-day seminar in Augusta, Maine to learn the Routefinder system which had only been lightly used.
When she later saw a demonstration of Routefinder PLUS, she was blown away.
“Of course, when you see it, you’re like ‘Why wouldn’t I want more bells and whistles?’” she said. “The plug-and-play, the clickability. It’s much more intuitive.”
Routefinder has helped Roman and the district also deal with a number of issues, such as the ongoing driver shortage.
“At first you take it personally,” she said one day when she was down three drivers. “Then you realize you can only do so much… The driver shortage is real.” She likes “having in real-time the ability to look at your drivers and your fleet and be able to schedule resources and look for those efficiencies… I don’t see this [the driver shortage] getting better.”
She also likes that in Routefinder PLUS there is more than one way to perform a task. “There are multiple ways,” Roman said. “In PLUS, you can do it this way, but you also have this other way to do it. So, whatever is more intuitive for you, you’re still going to get there. It’s OK.”
Roman admits she is comfortable working with computers and technology.
“I’m a self-proclaimed weird computer person,” she joked. “Meaning that probably because of my age, I grew up with analog going to digital. And so, I’ve always played around in computer programs. You can’t break it.”
That’s the encouragement she gives to others: Don’t worry about messing things up.
“The advice I give someone is if it works, great. And if it ends up messed up, there’s a way to fix it. So, having no fear in that realm was really helpful,” Roman said.
She remembered just playing around in the software and finding it easy to use. “I was like, ‘I can make a bus drive around this route. Let’s add a road and see what happens because the bus drop-off road isn’t there.”
‘PLUS is Much More Intuitive’
Routefinder PLUS has what it calls a “sandbox” environment for people like Roman to test the system and try out various functions without impacting actual routes.
“What I like about PLUS is it’s much more intuitive,” she said.
The training helped set her up for success with the program and all its new functions and features.
“The training I did was well worth it,” she said. “Support’s been really good. I so, so enjoyed the training. It was very well done. With the onboarding process I’m not feeling stranded or frustrated. I like support. When I call, I don’t feel like it’s ‘Oh my gosh I can’t believe you’re calling again. Here’s the person from Maine.’”
She appreciates that. Roman has experienced both virtual and in-person Transfinder training. She said when she was new to the transportation role, she attended a two-day Transfinder training session in the state capital, Augusta. And while Transfinder’s software is purchased by the state and offered for free to districts, she recalled some district representatives discussing that they opted not to use it and remain manual and doing the routes by hand.
Transfinder Puts Power in the Hands of Transportation Leaders
Some of those transportation leaders attending that training years ago would publicly voice their feelings that they did not need routing software to do their jobs.
“I’m not going to use this anyway because the bus goes down the same road it has for the last 40 years,” Roman recalled a sentiment voiced during the training. “Why should I take time to put it in this computer system?”
Roman, still new to the job at the time, thought: “They have a valid point up until that point where you’re standing in front of a school committee and trying to stay fiscally responsible.”
Then the question becomes: Do you want to have command of the facts and figures or rely on others?
“Do you want your business manager to do that work for you or would you like to be the one to say, ‘Well, no, I’ve crunched it [the numbers]?’” Roman likes to have those stats at her fingertips.
She instantly saw the payoff early on in her use of Routefinder Pro, the predecessor to Routefinder PLUS. When she started inserting routes from Excel into Routefinder it became apparent the routes were inefficient. “Very quickly we saw our buses doing this around town,” she said, drawing circles in the air. “Circle, circle, circle.” Those routes had been drawn up by someone who’d been doing it for years and had the institutional knowledge of each kid’s bus “weirdly in his head.”
“But then when you put them down (on a map) you watch this looping and circling for the same school.” With Routefinder, Roman’s team was able to consolidate routes.
“And then when you push that optimize button,” she said, pausing with a big smile on her face, “and you watch what it could be.” And if the suggested optimized route includes a street that may be under construction, Roman said it’s easy to make edits.
“It’s very seamless,” she said.
Other features she likes is the ability to see the multiple layers and the ability to zoom in to get great details on the maps and the ability to open many tools in one window.
“It’s awesome that it’s getting smarter,” she said.
While those first days on the job three years ago were daunting, Roman said that’s not how she describes incorporating new technology like Routefinder PLUS into her district these days.
“It’s not that daunting,” she said. “You can see where things import in, where they import out. It connects to my enrollment system.”
Like the adage “garbage in, garbage out,” Roman says: “You have to do the work to make the end product something that will last for years and years and years.”
Lewiston Public Schools provides user access to the bus contractor the district works with. Roman likes the fact that it is easy to instruct, including those who work for the bus contractor.
“I like the fact that you can do things with users,” she said. “So, when you have a user you can say, ‘You’re going to be a user with training wheels’ and ‘You—you know a lot, so I’m going to make you my backup as an admin. Those tools are valuable.”
Roman encourages other district transportation leaders to “make sure you do some analysis on what you really need and your expectations. If you think you’re going to have a system up and running in two days, you need to check your expectations a tad.”
But the effort in the end pays off.
“It’s worth it in the end,” Roman said, “because if it’s all flowing correctly, when a kid gets added to the enrollment, you don’t have to ask ‘Deborah’ down the hall because you see it on your map.”
Learn more about Routefinder Plus.