Dontarrious Rowls, the director of transportation and fleet services for Flagler County Schools on Florida’s Palm Coast south of Jacksonville, focused on his routing inefficiencies and did more with less resources by incorporating several different initiatives into his transportation department.
Rowls became the director of Flagler in 2021, after serving as the assistant director of transportation at nearby Osceola County Schools. [Editor’s Note: Read more about Rowls’ road to director at stnonline.com/go/ei.] He recalled that when taking the position, he reviewed the core values and mission statement of the transportation department. This led him to recreating various aspects of transportation and focusing on his “strategy to success.
One of those strategies was the transition to inclusive student transportation, which transports students with disabilities on standard-route school buses alongside students in general education. “We have been practicing that inside our brick-and-mortar schools inside the classroom,” he said. “So, why wouldn’t we extend that same opportunity to our children on the bus? And it not only gives the students with special needs or disabilities the opportunity to feel included, but it also educates our [general education] students with the opportunity to have that relationship and learn more about students with special needs.”
He said because the school bus is an extension of the classroom, an inclusive environment creates a space where a student with special needs shouldn’t feel different because they’re riding a smaller bus with six or seven other students to school. “Having a major focus on inclusive transportation gives students the opportunities to be cohesive with one another,” he explained.
He said this isn’t the solution for every student with disabilities or special needs, as some may have challenges with high levels of sound for example, but he said that the option is offered and being addressed on a case-by-case bias. So far, in the first year about 19 percent of the districts special education population is being transported through inclusion.
“As the first-year pilot continues to be a successful addition to our students’ development, we have every intention to double our percentages in the 2023-2024 school year,” Rowls noted, adding that currently about 48 students with special needs out of a total of 249 total special needs students are in the program.
Another change for this school year was adding more full-size Type C school buses into its fleet and replacing the Type C low-capacity, short chassis variety. He explained that the 80-passenger conventional buses are more inclusive and provide for greater versatility in maximizing district equipment and dollars.
Rowls explained that a major component of the inclusive transportation model was using the larger buses. He said previously Flagler schools were operating several of the shorter Type Cs for students with special needs. He pointed out that using the smaller Type C required more certified drivers and bus aides because of reduced passenger capacity. Plus, he said the district was paying the same amount of money to bus drivers who were transporting 15 students as drivers who were transporting 50 or 60.
He noted that a bus that can only transport 15 students total is tying up district resources. Rowls explained the decision to move toward more traditional Type C buses with wheelchair lifts allows more students with disabilities to ride with their general education peers.
“That was one of the big things, looking at equipment and seeing what was out there to help provide service in an inclusive environment,” he explained. “Also, too, with the old way we were doing transportation, we were having a [smaller] Type C bus and a Type C or D bus going into the same neighborhoods, servicing the same stops. We were sending two buses in the same neighborhood because one kid was on a smaller bus and required a bus aide and because another student rode the general education bus and rode curb to curb on walk out stops.
“Looking at some of those areas of inclusion, ‘Hey, let’s put one bus to service the entire neighborhood. Johnny’s my neighbor and just because Johnny’s in a wheelchair doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t get a ride to school with me,’” he continued. “[We worked through] some of those opportunities, making all students of Flagler County schools feel included and not separated based on the services or equipment that we provide to those students,” he said. He added that these decisions were also based on the school bus driver shortage.
“And so just looking at those opportunities and saying, ‘Okay, we’re short 10 drivers and we can’t get our kids to school on time,” he explained. “What can we do to get all of our students to school on time and going to the inclusion route for some that it was relevant? We don’t do inclusion on everything, we still offer some of the smaller inclusive styles of transport. But just looking at our opportunities and evaluating our students, looking at their IEPs and saying, ‘Hey, can we do inclusion here?’ Just being able to look at some of those inclusion opportunities, we were able to take 10 buses off of the road.”
Other Big Changes to the Department
Efficiency was another huge focus for the transportation department at Flagler County Schools, which included further reducing school bus routes and buses and recalculating the school bus replacement plan to reduce operating costs.
Rowls explained that the district started by looking at its numbers. For instance, if there was 2,000 elementary school students that are eligible for school transportation, staff broke down how many routes would be needed for that student population.
“We completely demolished our routes, tore them down to the bones. The only thing that we had were [bus] stops,” he explained, adding that then his department started building routes from there. “Stop by stop, route by route, trip by trip, to actually build and run field trips even, to make routes more efficient.”
He added that his staff made them fit into the time parameters that they needed to be successful. Rowls added that Flagler also transitioned to a three-tier bell schedule to maximize the number of buses and drivers needed. This consisted of working with each school site to get each grade level (elementary, middle, and high school) on the same tier.
“Then the routing perspective was making sure that we were able to maximize our buses,” he continued, adding that in a perfect world a bus would operate at full capacity. “Our full capacity had a lot to do with comfort and not actually the capacity of the bus that it is designed for.”Now, he said, the district fits about 165 students to a bus per day, or about 55 per tier, compared to only 115 or 120 (about 40 students per tier) that were previously maxed out last year. “We use routing software, but as someone who has sat at the forefront of routing and routing by hand, you could never remove the human function from routing and it’s not matter how fast or how digitized,” he explained.
He continued, adding that the district’s routing soft-ware performs the planning, and then transportation officials look at the route print outs and make corrections manually.
The final strategy was focusing on an overall cost reduction by developing a bus replacement plan. He explained that any school bus older than about five years was costing the district money to keep on the road. He said the key benefit to purchasing a new school bus was the five-year warranty, which in some cases can be ex-tended depending on location and manufacturer.
He noted that like operating new personal vehicles, parts and equipment will need to be replaced regularly because of traditional wear and tear. But having an eight-year replacement plan keeps costs down when it comes to budgeting and parts maintenance. “If you’re running buses, you are going to spend more money on keeping those buses up on the road,” Rowls said, adding that newer buses also offer more fuel-efficient engines.
This is the first year that Flagler is beginning the eight-year bus replacement plan. After buses run daily routes over that eight-year period, they will be assigned to the district’s spare fleet for the next four years. “At the 12-year mark, the bus will be removed from rotation and then placed for auction, depending upon the condition of the vehicle and position of the district at that time,” Rowls explained. “In a year’s time, we have reduced our fleet’s average age from 11 to nine years old. By the 2024-2025 school year we will be in the full cycle. We also removed all non-air-conditioned buses from our fleet.”
He added that he’s looking forward to seeing the final transportation costs for this school year, as the department is operating at full force, transporting about 6,000 students with a fully staffed stable of 68 regular bus drivers and substitutes, and implemented all the strategies to increase efficiency within the operations.
“COVID taught us that we could do more with less, so we’ve seen that in the operating budget,” he concluded. “And were still doing business, functioning at a high capacity.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the February 2023 issue of School Transportation News.
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