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Nov 10, 2014, 11:48 AM

View from the Driver’s Seat: Thriving Through Privatization

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” – George Bernard Shaw

Transportation is vital to the support that school districts can provide to children in their communities. Across the U.S., districts share a deep appreciation for the pivotal role that school bus drivers play in supporting their educational mission and purpose. In fact, these drivers serve as the face of districts in many ways, providing a direct link between children’s homes and their schools each day. This helps to explain why, among self-operated districts, privatizing transportation service as a means to improve student transportation efficiency and performance while preserving valuable teaching resources is often not considered based upon the perceived risk of losing their current trusted drivers. Uncertainty and mistrust in the decision-making process can take a hefty toll on district-community relations.

We interviewed two First Student drivers who recently completed the transition from district-run operations to contracted service and asked them to share what the process was like for them. They have responded and have also provided insight into lessons learned from the process and advice for other drivers whose districts are considering privatization.

Standing Out From the Crowd

When budget constraints began to impede its educational focus, the Port Huron Area School District (PHASD) looked for opportunities to lower non-education expenses — and transportation was the obvious choice. By 2011, PHASD had conducted a full review of its transportation system and was looking to attract new investment into the community to support its students, workers and families. A similar situation would soon unfold in Xenia, Ohio where, after making $10 million in budget cuts during a two–year period to off-set dramatic revenue losses, Xenia Community Schools decided in spring 2012 to privatize its school transportation service with First Student. Drivers Holly Thatcher of Xenia Community Schools and Karen Scott of Port Huron Area Schools were both employed by their respective districts and have since made the transition to become First Student employees.

Members of the Xenia and Port Huron communities initially expressed disapproval of their district’s decision to privatize school bus service. At the same time, however, district leadership understood that contracting school support services is one of the best ways to improve operating efficiency and still preserve teaching resources.

The drivers we interviewed said that, at the time of the announcement, they found themselves in an atmosphere of anger, fear and negativity. In the weeks  and months following the district’s decision to contract with First Student, Holly and Karen would see many of their former colleagues walk away from employment offers and abandon their passion for being school bus drivers.

However, these two drivers’ experiences, taken together, reveal the existence of a frequently overlooked opportunity available to all of us whose circumstances suddenly shift – the opportunity to embrace change. Holly and Karen each made the conscious decision to be pragmatic in assessing the district’s situation; weigh their options with First Student independently from others; embrace change as a learning opportunity; and, strive to remain positive. As a result, both Holly and Karen have seen meaningful personal and professional growth as they continue to do the work they love most.

Don't Believe the Hype: Rumor vs. Reason in Xenia, Ohio

Holly Thatcher, Xenia Bus DriverAny major change can be scary for those affected. Privatizing student transportation is no different. According to First Student driver Holly Thatcher, pictured left, this was the case in Xenia where the district’s announcement, which sparked widespread rumors of mass driver layoffs, was met with community dismay and confusion. Holly, who began driving for Xenia Schools eight years ago so she could be home with her children, remembers the process began to stabilize as drivers emerged from “the rumor-mill” and had the opportunity to get clear answers from First Student management. Holly explains, “There were so many unknowns and ‘what-ifs’ that the not knowing was the scariest part.”

First Student held a three-day class for drivers and led safety meetings to introduce our approach to safety, which differed from what the district had done. Drivers learned how to perform ZONAR pre-trip bus inspections; learned what the company would expect of them; and, received copies of the employee handbook. Once Holly received sound information about her options and gained a solid understanding of what the transition would entail, she decided to stay on-board as a driver because, in her words, “I love my job! I am the first person our children see in the morning. I have the opportunity to make a positive impact on their whole school day.”

According to Holly, privatizing transportation service with First Student has resulted in an overall improvement in operations at Xenia Community Schools. She cites several factors that have contributed to this overall improvement.

Communication

“First Student is good at talking with parents and letting them know what’s going on. They are more compassionate about working with parents who didn’t get kids to their bus stop on time, and generally better at being flexible with parents,” she observes. The new “One Call” system gives notice to parents if there are issues with a delayed arrival or pickup time. For parents of kindergarten students, who are required to be present at the stop, the ‘One Call’ saves them from a long wait in the rain or snow. Parents now also receive a phone call to update them on the status of their child’s bus.

Safety

Holly appreciates the new Child Check-Mate System® system because “it reminds us how important it is to check for sleeping children on the bus.” Xenia’s school bus fleet also received Zonar’s Electronic Vehicle Inspection Reporting System, GPS, digital cameras, and crossing control arms, as well as additional new vehicles.

Training

Drivers now attend monthly safety meetings that are well-organized and on-topic. These meetings keep the team attentive to First Student safety practices and policies, such as scanning before making turns, double-checking and putting safety first. Also newly instituted by First Student are “on-the-road” evaluations, which call for drivers to demonstrate their skills on the roadway with an instructor. “It helps me to stay sharp on my driving skills,” Holly explains.

Preferred Employer

Because First Student is focused exclusively on transportation and not juggling additional school administrative duties, drivers receive stronger managerial support. The company also offers rewards for drivers who uphold a perfect attendance record. Holly reports a heightened commitment to equal employment opportunity. First Student management has shown zero tolerance for impropriety in the workplace, which has created a working environment free of discrimination, unlawful harassment or abusive behavior.

Holly's Driver Advice

Holly’s advises drivers who may be in a similar situation: “Don’t listen to the rumors. First Student did bring us back on and our pay wasn't cut – in fact we received a small raise. Let them come in and talk with you. Give everything a chance, despite the rumors. Until you see it in writing, don’t quit.”

Embracing the New Day in Port Huron, Mich

Karen Scott, Port Huron Bus DriverAccording to Karen Scott, pictured left, who has been transporting students for Port Huron Schools since 1988, most people don’t realize the enormous responsibility that school bus drivers take on when they get behind the wheel each and every day. “It’s a respectable job,” she affirms. “We’re a unique breed!”

Karen recalls a rocky start to the 2011-2012 school year. New First Student rules and procedures had many drivers feeling some anxiety, as they worked hard to adopt new practices. When asked how she and the rest of the team overcame their anxiety, Karen replied, “We all just plugged along and tried to learn the best we could. Eventually, we built good relationships and rapport with the new people from First Student.”

For Karen, one of the best things about being a school bus driver is the fact that every day is different – different weather, roadway conditions, passengers and drivers. This desire to keep on her toes is apparent in Karen’s positive attitude toward transition. When the district contracted with First Student, her philosophy became, “It’s a different day. Let’s make the best of it.”  This disposition allowed her to take advantage of new learning and growth opportunities as a First Student driver.

Learning to Teach

Since the transition, Karen has become a First Student Trainer - a move she strongly encourages other drivers to take if given the opportunity. In her role as Driving Trainer, Karen interviews and teaches new drivers in the classroom and behind-the-wheel. “Becoming a Trainer has been the best thing for me personally to grow and to get out of my box,” Karen shares. “The more I do it, the more I love it. It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of fun,” she adds.

“We continue to encourage Karen,” adds Amy Wolfe, First Student Port Huron Location Manager. “Each time we push her past her ‘comfort zone,’ she excels and surprises herself, but not us - we know she can do it.”

Over-the-Top Safety

Each year since beginning our partnership with Port Huron Area School District, First Student has delivered new buses equipped with safety features including cameras, Child Check-Mate and Theft-Mate. Karen cites safety and training as the most noteworthy areas of improvement. Not only does First Student offer considerably more training than the district had previously provided, but there are also now annual physical dexterity tests, monthly safety meetings and annual driving evaluations. “A lot of good policies and safety measures were put in place,” she points out, “First Student’s safety commitment is truly extraordinary – the company really goes over-the-top with safety.”

Life with First Today

Karen’s favorite time of the school year is seeing her seniors in their caps and gowns as she transports them to commencement. “It’s bittersweet because I get attached to my kids. I’m proud of them,” Karen expresses. When soon-to-be high school graduates tell her they’re nervous about going out into the world on their own, she encourages them by telling them, “This is exciting. Your whole life is ahead of you!”

Karen's Driver Advice

“Go in with an open mind. A lot of our drivers came in with resentment, animosity, anger. Let it go. Because this is a new day, a new year, and – make the best of it!” Regarding the transition period, Karen explains, “When rules change, don’t let it get to you because everybody is settling in. Give it time. Get to know your new bosses.”

By transitioning to contracted service with First Student, our district partners are able to preserve precious teaching resources while keeping qualified, familiar faces behind the wheel and focusing district personnel on what they do best - educating children. Today, after successfully navigating their districts’ transitions to privately contracted transportation service with First Student, both Holly and Karen show tremendous enthusiasm for their work and an unwavering commitment to the safety of their student passengers. Holly and Karen are truly an inspiration to all of us who are challenged to embrace changes in our own lives. We are honored to have them on our First Student team.