School BUSRide recently spoke with Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS). Hood will retire in March after a career spanning almost 40 years.
How did you first get into the school bus and school transportation industry?
I started out in education, having graduated from Florida State University as an elementary education major. I quickly discovered during my internship at FSU that I really was not a natural at dealing with kids. I love kids and obviously my whole career is centered around students, but I did not particularly take to the teaching aspect of.
One of the things I had already decided at that point was that I needed tangible skills as a backup plan, so I made an intentional effort to make my avocation, which at that time was mechanics and racing motorcycles, into a vocation, and I went to work at a local Ford dealership. I have huge respect for teachers, it is an incredible challenge, and I am grateful for them. I just was not any good at it. I respect school bus drivers for the same reason. Like teachers, successful bus drivers are good at the art of working with children.
I worked at various local dealerships for six years and during that time I became acquainted with a project over at FSU, in the Center for Studies in Vocational Education, where they were writing auto mechanics curriculum. I helped them write a couple of units in an instructional series and I found that relating my technical skills in writing was interesting. Having a grandmother and mother who had both been English teachers helped. I would go out and repair cars while my colleagues took photographs of the mechanical procedures, which they then turned into line drawings. Following that I helped write and edit the drafts through the final instructional manuals.
That was an interesting and rewarding aspect of my career, albeit a short one that lasted only 14 months through completion of the project. During that time, a colleague told me about a job at the Florida Department of Education for a school bus maintenance specialist. Although I did not have much experience with trucks and buses, I had some through my automotive work. I became certified as a master automotive and bus technician through the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), which was a new organization at that time.
I was hired at FDOE by Larry McEntire, then Florida’s state director of student transportation, in June of 1981. I spent a lot of time traveling all over the state and got a crash course through extensive time in Florida’s school districts. People who knew way more about school buses and transportation than I did held my hand. They were very generous and kind, letting me shadow them and do school bus inspections with them. At that time, Florida’s transportation personnel went into each other’s school districts along with FDOE and did peer reviews where we analyzed not just the fleet maintenance side, but also the operational side. They were and are a dedicated and great group of professionals.
That experience, combined with the training by school bus and component suppliers that FDOE allowed me to attend, allowed me to function as a school bus maintenance specialist. I eventually got to the point where I was going out and providing training and consulting services, helping establish patterns of information about perceived defects in school buses, and coordinating OEM and manufacturer-provided training for the districts.
I held the position of school bus maintenance specialist for four years before I was appointed director of the Fleet Management subsection. Within that group, we developed and updated school bus specifications, conducted the statewide school bus purchasing program, and generally provided assistance to local fleet managers, technicians, and parts personnel. In 1989 I was promoted to the State Director of Student Transportation, a position I held for 24 years while working with a lot of talented colleagues at the local, state, and national level.
I particularly treasured my relationship with the members of the Florida Association for Pupil Transportation. Florida has a lot to be proud of, such as its exemplary program for establishing robust school bus specifications with input from all the stakeholders, including the manufacturers and component suppliers as advisors.
What was one of your department’s biggest accomplishments during that period?
In the 1990s, we developed a first of its kind, comprehensive school bus inspection manual that consisted of detailed pass/fail criteria for the different items on school buses that are required to be inspected every month under Florida’s regulations. The manual provides detailed guidance for inspection of the entire bus.
The manual was instituted on a voluntary basis as a pilot program for several years, and it included testing and certification procedures to ensure the competence of the local school district inspectors who were performing the inspections. The program requires that technicians pass both hands-on and written testing. Following successful pilot testing as a voluntary program and with FAPT’s recommendation and concurrence, the State Board of Education adopted the program into rule.
Every school bus inspector in Florida must be certified and tested, both in a 100-question written test administered locally and in a hands-on timed inspection administered by FDOE. Prior to the program, the Florida Highway Patrol was conducting less thorough inspections annually on school buses in the state, both public and private, to augment the monthly local inspections for which there were no established criteria. In 1995 the FHP convinced the legislature to decommission their program, because they wanted to put those troopers back on the road doing traffic enforcement. That was the trigger for us and FAPT strengthening self-regulation, to take the place of state oversight,
Plus, we felt that an annual inspection was nowhere near enough to ensure the ongoing safety of a school bus. Technicians, school bus drivers, and everyone in the chain must be incredibly rigorous about safety and not compromise it. That is the strength of our profession, and it is why yellow gets in your blood. Although we may have our differences of technique or mode of operating, nationally, across the United States, everyone is aimed at the same goal, with safety as our number one priority.
It is great to have worked in a career that offered so much variety, the opportunity for travel, professional development, and collaboration with the different associations.
How did you get your start at NASDPTS?
By 2014, I was close to retirement at FDOE, and I knew the Executive Director of NASDPTS at that time was considering retiring. I felt it would be a good fit for me. I have always been involved with NASDPTS, including as one of its past presidents, and always believed strongly in the organization. We focus on supporting the leadership at a state-level, particularly when it comes to training and guidance, and I thought working full time with NASDPTS I could promote that. I retired from the Department of Education on June 30, 2014 and was started with NASDPTS on July 1.
From your perspective as head of NASDPTS, what would you say is a point of pride from that period in your career?
The leadership we have provided through our position papers and other guidance has been important. As examples, we researched and developed positions on the importance of school bus driver professionalism and qualifications and the added safety value of lap shoulder belts in school buses.
Early on, in the 1990s and prior, most of us in student transportation were opposed to the idea of two-point lap belts, which we knew to be an outmoded technology in the automotive world. At that time there was evidence that two-point lap belts in a compartmentalized school bus seating environment might cause more head and neck injuries. However, no technology to incorporate three-point lap/shoulder belts into school buses had been developed.
What we know now, is that school buses should have the superior protection provided by lap/shoulder belts. The flex seating technology developed around 2008 allows for the installation of lap/shoulder belts without reducing school bus capacity. There are several states that now require lap-shoulder belts in all new school buses.
We strengthened the NASDPTS position favoring lap/shoulder belts to augment compartmentalization in our latest position paper, “Lap/shoulder Belts in School Buses,” released in May 2020.Obviously, NASDPTS has no regulatory authority, but we felt we needed to include the latest information and reiterate that as an organization of state leaders of student transportation we favor the installation of lap/shoulder belts in new school buses.
There will always be questions that need to be researched more thoroughly, but there is a considerable body of evidence, discussed in the paper, that supports the position.
One other NASDPTS project I would cite is the annual illegal passing survey the association conceived and developed. Loading and unloading safety is where students are most vulnerable as school bus riders. Although we know that kids in and around school buses are incredibly safe, we also know that they are most vulnerable during the school bus portion of their day as pedestrians outside the bus.
Some of us have asked ourselves, “Why do we keep doing this survey every year? All it does is prove the same thing over and over and over,” which is to document the incredible number of illegal passes of school buses every year by the motoring public.
We all know, however, that getting the attention of legislators, policymakers, parents, motorists, and others, in acknowledging the problem has been a useful tool in driving policy changes. The 15 million plus illegal passes our survey has estimated each school year has prompted some states to improve their enforcement, their laws, and increase penalties in many cases. The data has also captured the attention of federal safety agencies, like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which recently announced some initiatives designed to drive new safety countermeasures.
What have you learned of the value of working and collaborating with various industry associations?
The value of working together is that none of us individually has all the answers. We depend on each other. The collaboration with anyone who can contribute to the conversation is important.
For example, recently we all learned about the President’s Executive Order mandating the wearing of masks by drivers and passengers of all public transportation vehicles. By working together with my cohorts at the other associations we were able to research the issue and answer the predictable questions that we knew our respective members would have.
In terms of government entities, they know that if they are talking to any one of us, we probably represent the others as well in terms of the broad issues that we are dealing with in student transportation.
One formal way we collaborate, in addition to the ongoing day-to-day, ad hoc collaboration, is through the American School Bus Council, which includes not just the three associations, but also the three major school bus manufacturers. Through ASBC, we have helped internal and external stakeholders understand the benefits of school bus ridership in terms of environmental benefits, safety benefits, and equitable access to education. The fact is school buses are the best way for kids to get to school when they are available.
Looking back on your whole career, what is an important lesson learned from your time both statewide and nationally?
At the high point in my office, we had 10 professionals and two support staff, so I never had a huge staff. The one thing I learned that is applicable at all levels of management, regardless of the size of one’s organization, is the importance of servant leadership.
Over time, it became apparent to me that my job and the definition of success for me as a manager was whether I was able to ensure that my people were successful. Was I able to help put them in a position where they were qualified to take my job, or any job they chose in student transportation? I always felt more like an orchestra leader. Working to avoid micromanagement helped them develop as individuals, professionals, and staff members. Everyone is different and requires a different approach that respects their individual needs and styles. Your overall job is to make them successful. That can be somewhat selfish because the end result is that a manager does not have to work as hard if subordinates are doing a good job.
That is my philosophy of management. I believe that being a successful manager does not just happen, it is something you must work at.
What is next for you?
I have not thought that much about what comes after school transportation. While I do not plan to remain in any paid capacity, I have expressed to the NASDPTS board that whatever they need, I will be available. I will be happy to help however I can.
In terms of personal life, Della and I would like to resume traveling when conditions allow, and hopefully some of that travel will involve our friends in the school bus business. We want to do more international traveling and explore some new hobbies. I am looking forward to remaining physically active and pursuing an array of interests. Certainly giving back through some forms of volunteer work will be on life’s agenda.
For many, many years, one of the things on my bucket list has been to study the history of jazz. I bleed yellow and I bleed NASDPTS, but I am also looking forward to completing some long-delayed home projects. Those who know me understand that cooking and consuming a variety of adventurous cuisine have always been among my guilty pleasures. Cooking school and more food tourism are not out of the question!
I hope if any friends and colleagues in the yellow bus world ever come through Tallahassee, they will call me up so we can go to lunch and catch up.