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Transportation Director Shares Path Taken to Bring District Out of the ‘Dark Ages’

East Valley School District, located in Spokane, Wash. near the Idaho border, has come a long way in utilizing technology to create routes and assist with running a smooth operation.

Leading the district’s transportation operation was Lorri Smith, who had been with the district for 13 years. She joined the district following a stint as a contractor for Spokane Public Schools that she said “had all the bells and whistles,” including buses equipped with cameras and GPS.

“When I came [to East Valley], they had nothing,” recalled Smith. The district transports 1,700 students daily. “It was like the Dark Ages.” In fact, when the district made significant changes to bell times that caused the district to scurry to cover the routes, one principal acknowledged not really understanding how students got routed.

“One principal actually told us, ‘It’s kind of just like bus fairies come and just put everybody on buses and it just happens,’” Smith laughs, noting how that year “everybody spent the entire Labor Day weekend learning their routes.” (So much for fairies!).

She had a moment after starting at the district where she thought to herself, “What did I do to myself?” But it didn’t take long before Smith began making plans to bring East Valley into the 21st century.

“I started to do my own research,” she said. “I’d seen different systems in the past,” such as Versatrans, Tyler Technologies and Edulog. Despite familiarity with these products in the past, it was when she reviewed Transfinder’s solutions that she knew she’d found the right partner and solution “because it was more simplified.”

Smith brought Transfinder’s Routefinder Pro into the district more than a decade ago and then helped the district transition to Pro’s successor, Routefinder PLUS, the award-winning, browser-based routing solution.

At the time, Routefinder Pro was revolutionary to the district, she said. The move to Transfinder’s routing software in the first place was necessitated by the district’s need to become more efficient.

“It was really for efficiency,” she said, noting: “It was pins on a map,” prior to Routefinder Pro. “When I came here we had routes crisscrossing each other. They were actually hand typed.”

When a bus stop was no longer needed, they kept it on the route sheet anyway.

“So, a route could end up having 40 stops and only 15 of them were being used,” Smith remembered. “It really skewed the times.”

With Pro, Smith and her East Valley team could visualize the stops and made adjustments.

“I believe we’ve gained efficiencies,” Smith said. “I got rid of all the crisscrossing and we were able to reduce a route a year at least.” In fact, when Smith starts to do the math, it’s actually around 17 or 18 routes in 13 years.

“We had 48 routes when I started,” she said. “And now I’ve got just over 30.” Smith said she’s not just maximizing the drivers she has but their buses are filled to capacity as well.

With more than a year using Routefinder PLUS, Smith said authoritatively that PLUS has taken the district even further into the future in terms of efficiency. Adding and eliminating stops is much easier. And crisscrossing routes are a thing of the past, replaced by more efficient routes and stops.

“It is faster and I do like the flexibility because there are times that we have to work from home,” she said. It also helps her compare routes year-over-year to find efficiencies.

“There have been instances where I pull up Routefinder PLUS on one screen for the current year and then pull up Routefinder PLUS for the previous year and am able to compare the two,” she said. It is helpful, for example, when she needs to see how a past route or stop was set up. “Now you can actually pull them both up and have them side by side.”

The PLUS system also makes it easier to make changes on routes, sometimes requested by drivers who may recommend tweaks from time to time. It’s also easier to adjust, add or remove stops. The system makes it easy to create exceptions as well.

PLUS’ optimization tools, part of Transfinder’s proprietary Artificial Intelligence Optimization (AIO), have also played a key role in finding efficiencies.

“It is a good starting point when developing a route or combining routes, I’ll use that route optimization and see how it does and then I’ll go in and just tweak it where I need to,” she said. Drivers also play a role in recommending adjustments based on their experience with the landscape. That’s a best practice recommended by Transfinder, tapping into a district’s institutional knowledge to review and adjust routes that best suit a particular community.

Smith said another function of PLUS that she likes is the ability to create custom reports that she can control.

“One of the things that we’ve created for our drivers is what we call a ‘mug book,’ she said. Using Formfinder, which is imbedded in PLUS for free, her team created a book that has a picture of every student on a given driver’s route and some information about the student.

“It helps them get to know who their kids are,” Smith said.

That’s on a more granular, bus-stop level. For the big picture, the district uses Transfinder’s Viewfinder solution. At the district’s schools, office personnel have access to student ridership information and can address a host of questions that come in from parents.

“It has been helpful because they’re able to look up bus information,” Smith said.

Smith is also a fan of Tripfinder, which is Transfinder’s field trip solution.

“Tripfinder is great,” she said, noting how easy it is to schedule field trips. The district policy requires field trips be posted three weeks in advance. Tripfinder makes assigning drivers and buses to the trips simple.

“That’s been easy,” she said. “The approval process is really smooth and you can do it from anywhere.”

After speaking about all the solutions Smith used with her East Valley team, she stopped for a moment and added: “You know, the thing that impresses me the most about Transfinder is everyone is very down to earth, mentioning team members by name she has spoken with at trade shows or on the phone. She said she can tell that everyone at Transfinder “really supports the district.”

“Tony’s the same way,” she said, referring to Transfinder’s president and CEO, Antonio “Tony” Civitella. “I wouldn’t think twice if I needed to call Tony or email him. Everybody has their pecking order but everybody works together really well as a team to do what needs to happen, for things to get fixed.”

Equipped with that knowledge, Smith packed up this summer and moved about 130 miles west to become transportation director at a district with more than twice the number of students. It’s a career move she said that was helped by Transfinder.

Transfinder, she said, gave her a better understanding overall of running a transportation operation focused on safe and efficient routes.

“It helped me get the bigger picture,” Smith said, “how you want to start with your routing and what you should look for in efficiencies.”

Ruben Reyes, East Valley’s new director of transportation, said Transfinder helped make his transition smoother even with some turnover in the department.

“I like the technology,” he said. Beyond the technology, Reyes said Transfinder’s support has been invaluable.

“Coming into a new position with a new staff,” he said. “Transfinder aided us in navigating our district’s transportation successfully.”

To learn how Transfinder can help you find efficiencies and grow in your career, visit Transfinder.com.

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