The hearts were heavy, yet the smiles were contagious as I walked through the Matthew B Wallace Transportation Facility in Henderson, Nevada, to present Jennifer Vobis, the executive director of transportation at Clark County School District, with the 2022 School Transportation News Transportation Director of the Year Award.
Prior to my visit, Vobis’ husband Mark was involved in a Sept. 11 hit-and-run crash while riding his bicycle. While I was visiting the Clark County facility, Mark was hospitalized with life threatening injuries and Vobis was spending every minute she could by his side. At this writing, Vobis said her husband was progressing but had a long road to recovery ahead.
Despite Vobis being on leave, the department doesn’t skip a beat, thanks in part to her leadership style and her staff’s willingness and ability to step up.
“I think that having to turn on a dime and literarily hand over [the daily operations to my team] — I can’t even express how deeply appreciative I am of this team,” Vobis commented. “[My team] has allowed me the space to focus on what I need to, but still be able to be involved, because sometimes I need a distraction.”
She noted that her staff hasn’t faltered at all, adding that students haven’t suffered and neither has customer service for parents.
“This team has jumped in and ensured this ship keeps moving and sailing,” she said. “They bring me in when they need to, and they protect me when they need to as well. I don’t think there are any words to express my appreciation and I think their actions are a testament to what a strong team they are.”
Amber Rideout, the district’s director of transportation, said it’s her relationship with Vobis that provided her the confidence to assume day-to-day leadership of the district. The first step, she explained, was figuring out how to spread the work around to get things done and to ensure the department continues to run smoothly.
“There are some things that I didn’t realize that I was already able to assist her with because we had already collaborated on it,” she explained. “Then there are things that are new that come up.”
Rideout added that Vobis is the type of leader who allows employees to share their hesitation about certain responsibilities without negative repercussions. “[I can say] I don’t really know what I’m doing or I’m not sure what direction to go in, and she doesn’t force her opinions on you,” Rideout said. “She allows you to hear it from her perspective and her experience and you as the individual can think more creatively on how to resolve the issue.”
She noted that Vobis feeds employees the information and allows them to make their own decisions. “And I think that’s one of the best things, is that she’s not expecting us to be perfect,” Rideout said. “So, in her absence, what she’s expecting is for the communication to remain consistent. To make sure that if we need clarity to reach out. But for the most part that really hasn’t been an issue.”
Rideout noted that Vobis has been a great leader and has excelled at giving her staff the bigger scope of what needs to be done for the department. Rideout added that most of the district’s transportation administrators have a background in school bus driving, which provides that historical piece to the overall mission. Three administrators are new to the role and Vobis has brought them all in, allowed them to be heard, and to be part of the solution.
Vobis added that the leadership team coming together has been a perfect storm. When the previous executive director of transportation Shannon Evans retired, Vobis noted that several other members of the transportation team also retired or left their current positions. She noted that of the eight administrator positions to fill, she’s been lucky to have hand-picked six of the replacements.
“This is a new team, we’re all within our first year,” she said, adding that she feels blessed she was able to choose her team but also thankful that the team has taken her in. “We have really accomplished a lot, a lot.”
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Vobis noted that one of the things she was considering when selecting the team was the background each staff member had in the department. Vobis said all of them have pretty much come up through the department ranks and possess the historical knowledge of how things have operated in the past.
“They are great critical thinkers and great problem-solvers,” she said, adding that she is the same way. When she sees a problem, she starts looking for a solution and a way to address it and many members of the team share that same vision. “My goal is to leave things better than I found them.”
Rideout noted that she typically takes the lead on filtering information from team members to Vobis. She noted that if it’s possible, she and Vobis will have a conversation each morning and address staff questions. “If it’s not a good morning, we will manage what we can manage. And if we still need clarity it stays on the list,” Rideout explained. “And then sometimes you just have to make a decision as to what to do to get things done on based historically off of what we’ve done, or what we feel is the best decision to make.”
Currently, Rideout noted that the team wants to be respectful of what Vobis is going through, while still recognizing this achievement of being transportation director of the year.
“I think just being flexible with her in that capacity and knowing that even though she’s having the celebratory moment, it doesn’t mean that we have to celebrate it right this moment for her,” Rideout said. “When the time is more appropriate, I think as a department we can really recognize and give her the accolades that she deserves, at a time where maybe she can manage it better.”