School BUSRide spoke with Todd Silverthorn, president of the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation (OAPT) and transportation director for Kettering School District in Ohio.
Please introduce yourself and give an executive overview of your time in the industry
I have been with Kettering City Schools since July of 2015. I am the transportation supervisor for the district and in totality, I have been in the transportation industry 20 years this coming March.
I started out as a driver and then progressed into supervision. This is my third district that I have been in. I was with First Student for about a year and a half prior, and then I was with the district prior to that as a supervisor in Vandalia, Ohio.
What are the biggest issues currently facing your community from a pupil transportation point of view?
Our biggest challenge is getting enough drivers and staff, not only in our district, but throughout the state and the country. That is one of our main challenges and we have also noticed a decrease in applicants this year. Even though we have listings on Indeed and on our consortium that we use here in Ohio, the applicant flow is next to nil, unfortunately.
What kind of strategies are you employing to address this issue?
About a year ago, the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation (OAPT), sent out a survey asking some basic questions about what folks thought the challenge behind our driver issue was. A majority of the responses addressed the number of hours that we were offering for staff. Pay was also a huge concern, and then obviously insurance. We get a lot of folks that are looking for insurance, and unfortunately, with a part-time position, some districts don’t offer it at all.
Those are some of the big challenges that we were looking at. As far as hearing from the industry, here in Ohio, most of the districts went back to their business managers, their superintendents, and have discussed raising the driver pay or raising the minimum hours for their drivers and the potential hires for the future.
How would you gauge both the receptiveness to these solutions and the effectiveness in your community?
I think once they hear the concerns of supervisors, most superintendents and treasurers understand that we are essentially facing a crisis in terms of how to get students to and from school. Here in my district, we have increased the minimum hours from three hours to four and a half hours a day for our drivers, which qualifies them for a slightly discounted insurance rate if they so choose.
I think with the additional pay, it has been effective bringing staff in, but we are finding that by the time we train folks, which can take upwards of two to three months, we are also faced with either retirements or people who are choosing to leave the industry, so it is just a continuous revolving door.
The other piece that plays into that is we are now post pandemic, so we are still on the recovery side of things. We have pretty much stopped the bleeding so to speak, now we are trying to gain the resources that all the districts need.
How has, not only the pandemic, but the recovery period, affected day-to-day operations as a state organization?
We are thankful that being OAPT, the way that we operate for COVID has been relatively unchanged. We still have our monthly board meetings to discuss how our professional development is going to look for the year, and how are our conferences going to shape out. So far everybody has been able to attend, whether that is in person or virtually.
We have a great relationship with our state highway patrol, with the Department of Education, and they attend in person or virtually so that way we are still able get updates on changes that are coming into play and pass that along to the memberships as well.
You have a conference and trade show coming up in June. What are some of the points of interest for that conference?
Our conference and trade show takes place June 11-14 at the Embassy Suites in Dublin, Ohio. We have a great lineup. Our first day is geared towards all of the new supervisors. We have folks from the state coming in to discuss reporting, we have an attorney coming in to discuss HR aspects for new supervisors. Overall, what we took out of our surveys last year, what a lot of people wanted to hear or to have some type of coverage on, is how to maintain day-to-day operations and not get burnout. Basically maintaining your mental health during a stressful work environment when you are working 10, 12, 14 hour days. We have some great speakers coming in to talk through that.
We have Dr. Kate Steiner. She is coming in to give a presentation on burnout and maintaining mental health. Judy Carter, speaker, author, and coach is also presenting. She was previously a school teacher and she is going to talk about how to manage stress.
I think the key thing is that our membership needs to have that mental break from the day-to-day. Kind of talking through with some fellow members on the board, bringing in someone that can give them that smile, that laugh, that is important.
We are also going to run through PBIS for transportation professionals and do some Google training. We are also going to be partnering with the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) to offer an in-person course for folks in the surrounding states that want to come in and get that in-person training.
What does having the national conference in Ohio mean for the organization and for pupil transportation professionals in Ohio?
We love it that NAPT comes to Ohio. We in Ohio feel that we are one of the safest states around with the way that our laws are set up, the way that our professional development is centered around pupil transportation. We are super excited to have NAPT in Ohio, not to only offer to folks in Ohio, especially supervisor, superintendents, anybody who is involved in pupil transportation, but it also allows folks in the surrounding states to come to a centralized location, not only from the East Coast, but from the Midwest.
What advice would you offer to the NAPT membership at large and what can NAPT do to best help you, Ohio, and the OAPT?
Basically go back, listen to your staff, listen to the struggles that they are having because sometimes it is easy for all of us to get in a monotonous routine and just carry on the day-to-day. Listen to your staff, talk to your fellow peers in the transportation industry, get some advice from folks who have been doing this for quite some time. I have been doing this for 20 years. It doesn’t feel like 20 years. It feels like it has been closer to 10, but there is still always someone I have to seek out to for advice or for opinions.
Always being receptive to other folks, and obviously in our industry, we are so used to change and trying to keep an open mind to that. Reach out to your regional reps for NAPT or your local associations for any type of assistance you may need there. That is a great tool to utilize.
And follow up to your second question, what can NAPT do? They are great at communicating industry news and information. Federal laws, changes to FMCSA, providing the certification classes that are out there. That is fantastic.
I think it would be helpful if NAPT would take a national approach to advertising for school districts about the need for school bus drivers throughout the country. I think that would be beneficial for every single district throughout the nation if we had that assistance.