The Time for Advocacy Is NOW

Several months ago, we explored the issue of advocacy for school transportation professionals. Given the time of year and the environment in which we find ourselves, it seems appropriate to revisit that topic and go a little deeper. Why? Because it is getting pretty real out there!

The nation is still reeling under the COVID pandemic. It has affected all elements of our economy and society. School systems are working hard to overcome not only a school bus driver shortage but also a teacher shortage as they deal with struggling students returning to classrooms. All levels of our society are assessing needs and identifying ways to apply existing or potential funding sources to address those needs. School transportation should be fully engaged in such assessments, resource searches and funding campaigns. Our children depend on it as do our drivers and safety teams.

Indeed, as school budgets start to take shape, you will have opportunities to present your needs to superintendents and business officials. With that as background, l recall a recent article where we encouraged you to speak to those officials with truth about safety needs and to “stand up for safety” and for our children. At times like this, it is important to step up and define our needs clearly and assertively. If your superiors determine you do not need any or all of what we have requested, that is their responsibility and part of their jobs. Your job is to present the need and the anticipated outcomes without reservation.

But the ‘secret sauce’ is as much in the means you use to present your message as it is in the message itself. What do I mean by that? While it is important to know your issues and objectives, you must also know who to approach, whose support will help you achieve your objectives and how to shape and buttress your message. 

I would venture that some of the issues on the minds of transportation professionals this year will revolve around driver recruitment and retention (including driver morale and mental health), the upcoming new FMCSA requirements, school bus cleanliness, overall security and safety on the bus, new safety technologies and fueling options for buses, special needs transportation issues, and expanded educational options that increase demands for transportation.

So, let us explore some of the building blocks for getting yourself prepared for the campaign?

> Sharing the Pain: The More They Know

Do not hesitate to share with your superintendents and business officials (or your board of education if given the opportunity) just how serious the situation is in your operation. The driver shortage is dire in most parts of the nation and not likely to get any better in the coming year. School leaders are addressing shortages in teaching staff, cafeteria workers, and even in getting food supplies into the cafeterias! 

Do not shy away from defining your problem and challenging leadership to seek solutions that may include work and hour changes, wage changes, benefits, collaborations with neighboring districts, alternate vehicle selections and more. The more creative and forward-thinking you are, the more likely you will get attention. And being innovative and assertive shows school administration that they have a solid professional in the transportation department. That is YOU!

> Do Your Homework: Always Do Your Homework

No superintendent is going to respond to, “Hey boss, we are going to need to spend $300,000 on new equipment for the bus garage!” Right? 

Be prepared with facts to share about the problem you are trying to address as well as the solution you are putting forth. Behavioral issue? How many instances of misbehavior have you seen? On which routes? What time of day? Which drivers have more instances of misbehavior? What else have we done address it? What are we proposing now and why? That kind of thinking and analysis goes a long way in getting the superintendent’s attention.

Accidents happening? How frequent? What drivers are involved? Where are they happening? What time of day? What are the attending circumstances like traffic or weather or student actions on the bus? What is your solution and why? How will this help address the problem and why is it worth the investment of funding? 

The more you can approach your requests like a research project or an investigation, the better. It is kind of like making a case in court or testing the theory out in a science lab. Does that make sense?

> Finding Partners: You Are Never Alone

Sometimes it is quite easy to get caught up in the issues you face and to think no one else has it this bad. But as in any family setting, you are never alone. There are many partners out there to help you sort through the issues and identify and prioritize strategies:

• Neighboring districts can be a source of local air support and allow for you to show similar trends ‘right next door.’

• State and national associations are positioned at their respective levels to bring information and perspectives you will not get locally. 

• Kindred industries like trucking and transit buses allow you to set benchmarks for issues and solutions and partner in advocating for state of national solutions. 

• Parent groups who believe in what you do or simply need for you to be able to continue so their children can get to school.

• Product and service vendors who know their business and can help you quantify the benefits of the solutions you are seeking.

Step out and reach out to someone who can share your experiences
and brainstorm with you about ideas or even share their successes with you. 

> Priorities: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

…But, if you try some time, you find you get what you need.” Wisdom from the Rolling Stones. When working in this environment, which is as desperate as it is competitive, keep your eye on the NEED ball. Don’t let go of the things that you would love to have but maybe this is a time for addressing the needs. They are the easiest to justify to your supervisors and to the public. Those things will center around safety for the children. But do not forget protection for your drivers and aides. We live in an environment where people are attacking airline attendants and restaurant workers and where a citizen stabbed a bus driver to death on his bus in Pasco, Washington.

> Compromise: Meeting in the Middle, or Your Side of the Middle

At the end of the day, no one will get everything they asked for. In his book “CORPS BUSINESS,” author David Freedman outlined the “70 percent solution” which argues that, if you can get 70 percent of what you want, you should take it and move on to the next objective. Sounds like good advice in today’s world. So, when you are in the position of taking some or nothing, consider taking some. There will be another time to go back and get the rest. 

> Understand the Overall Environment

Keep on top of the trends that are affecting schools and school budgets. It will raise your star higher if your superintendent can see that you have a grasp for the situation he or she is in this year. So read your industry news and keep involved in your state and national associations who work hard to give you current information and trend analysis. Take all that information and integrate it into your thinking from a transportation services perspective. Knowledge is powerful and particularly useful to you in times like these.

This is a tough time for all in education. Our children are just getting back into the classroom after a year of hybrid or remote learning. Our teachers are doing the same. Budgets are strapped and everything has changed in one way or another, in large and small ways. All these things apply to transportation as well. Let us all find ways to step up to the need and work hard to get what we need for the children who ride our yellow school buses. It is that important.

Peter Mannella ( is chair of the NAPT Public Policy Committee.