When I first was hired in Oneida County, New York, in 1974, the County Executive I worked for told me to remember two things, one of which is the focus of this article. I have tried to live by it ever since: “If there is bad news or there are hard decisions needing my attention, it’s your job to tell me; never let me find out about them from other sources. I need to trust you will always tell me what I need to know.”
That 47-year-old advice seems to apply well to what we in school transportation are asked to do each day. Here is what I see: given that transportation is not always the highest priority in the pantheon of decisions that school administrators must make, transportation folks have been conditioned to often ‘decide’ against safety provisions because we “know” that someone up the chain will say “no.” This article is about standing up for safety above and beyond other considerations.
We have made our mantra “safety and efficiency,” but it can be argued that the most important word really is “safety.” Our jobs are to keep children safe while, of course, being efficient and prudent; not to do it in the most efficient way possible with safety as the secondary consideration. If we always speak of safety as “Job #1” then we need to keep that always up front in our choices and actions.
It is important to also consider decisions we make as an industry that affect overall safety policy, systems, and equipment. For example, when our National Congress on School Transportation (NCST) deliberates over evolutions in school bus safety, what balances will be struck between following the science and best practices and the need to accommodate state and local budget constraints? Those are always difficult conversations to have and decisions to make.
Two years ago, NAPT launched “Zip. Zero. Nada. None.” — a safety campaign to focus our industry on reducing accidents of all kinds to zero. That challenge was met often with questions about cost and local budget constraints. To operate with a singular focus on safety would not be easy and, in fact, could put us at odds with our school leadership and even some of our transportation colleagues.
In my years meeting with Transportation Supervisors, it was common to hear folks talking about such issues and ending their discussion with “but I am not going to ask for it.” The reason: “my business office won’t ever approve it.” With that in mind, let us look at a couple examples of how this plays out in practice and ask ourselves how we would handle the situations:
• As states and districts emerge from the throes of the pandemic, transportation officials will have especially challenging discussions regarding increased expenditures in transportation. As one example, how will we as an industry address the enhanced and increased cleaning regimens we adopted during the pandemic? Will we endorse continuation of that rigor or get comfortable with reverting to the practices that we carried out pre-pandemic?
• The driver shortage is the issue of our time in school transportation. In recruiting individuals in this new labor market, do we settle for ‘any willing human’ or do we increase our standards and our employment benefits packages to recruit the best possible individuals we can find? That is a very real and serious choice that our industry is confronting. How we choose and how we act will shape our industry for years
• We have seen drivers showing up for duty compromised by drugs or alcohol, especially on Mondays or on days following holidays. While that happens, you find yourself short-staffed or you may even be driving every day. In that context, you may not be able to carry out your role in relation to ‘reasonable suspicion’ observations. You believe it is necessary to bring on an additional staff person to interact with drivers for purposes of ensuring their roadworthiness. But will you pursue and advocate to meet that need? Many have not. Many have just decided they must do what it takes to ‘make things work.’
• Your school’s budget must reduce costs and your school administration is directing you to institute routes that include children having to cross the road to get to the bus. Your sense of safety has driven you to absolutely avoid crossing children as a part of your routes. Your policy and safety preference make you conclude that following their directive is fraught with danger. But if you push back at all, how forcefully do you push back? I know many who have stepped back from that confrontation in order to be team players. What would you do? How would you balance your knowledge of safe loading/unloading with the need to satisfy your school leadership with cost reductions?
• Many new technologies are available to avoid or mitigate school bus accidents. These include stability controls, automatic braking, on-board cameras, event recorders, fire suppression systems and more. NAPT and our sister associations are grappling with how to address these technologies, especially in the face of federal interest in requiring them on our school buses. As the efficacy of these technologies is demonstrated, will we as an industry embrace them and advocate for their installation and use as part of the formula for keeping our children safe? What role will cost play in our positions and advocacy?
In both local and global contexts, we as an industry have some challenges before us. We have a long and proud history of doing everything we can to keep our children safe. The intent of this article is not to be critical but to remind us of the amazing good we have done for the children. It is also intended to encourage us to stand firm on safety in the face of the many fiscal, social and health-related challenges that lie ahead.
In closing, I recently listened to a commencement speaker at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School graduation offer a challenge to the new Masters’ candidates to “Don’t back down or avoid obstacles to doing the right thing. Focus on the facts and the science and pursue what you know is right.” That needs to remain our collective Job #1.
The Moral of the Story: When your superintendent asks what you need, remember they hired you to tell them what you know and what’s right. Tell them what you need for them to know. Do not tell them anything less.
Peter Mannella (pfman5@gmail .com) is chair of the NAPT Public Policy Committee.