What I’ve Learned in My School Transportation Career

Alfred Karam is retiring from school transportation leadership after nearly 25 years on ‘the job.’He has always been a leader and a strong advocate for excellence and diligence in our work. He is a demanding presence in the profession in New York and has often presented at national conferences on data-driven decision making, quality control and organizational discipline. Al’s observations come from his heart and draw on his experiences and observations as a proud Marine and as a transportation professional. This is an important essay that is worth all of our time. I am honored to help in sharing Al’s words and thoughts.

– Peter Mannella, NAPT Public Policy Chair

July 31, 2024, is my last day as the Director of Transportation for the Shenendehowa (Shen) Central School District in Clifton Park, New York. Since I decided to retire, the days have accelerated. I joined Shen on July 1, 2014, and have been fortunate to work with an amazing team of school transportation professionals and administrators. Before my tenure with Shen, I spent 14 years with Bethlehem Central School District, located in Delmar, New York. Before my career in school transportation, I served our great country for 25 years as a United States Marine. Public service is in my blood!

As I reflect on the past 24 years in school transportation pending my retirement, I can’t help but feel a mix of pride and exhaustion. The journey has been filled with challenges and triumphs, and the lessons learned along the way have shaped my professional outlook and understanding of life.

The school transportation profession is an honorable profession. Few people outside the transportation departments know and understand the complexities of school transportation and what it takes to ensure we hire the right people, train them to the best standards, and get them to do this safety-sensitive job safely with little to no resources; fewer people understand what it takes to manage declining resources and yet continue to deliver quality services for our students and their families. After all, daily, the students’ lives are at stake; the students and community deserve nothing less than our best efforts. Failure is not an option.

I have made many friends, met many acquaintances, and worked with outstanding colleagues along the way from many parts of our nation. Dear colleagues including Dr. L. Oliver Robinson, Dr. Mike Tebbano, Peter Tunny, Mark Hanrahan, Tony Quaranta, David Dwyer, John Myers, Cheryl Dalton, George Geel, David Christopher, Cindy Jurewicz, Sara Najafapor, Peter Mannella, Peter Rodriguez, Mike Martin, Jon Leonard, Doreen Slingerland, Rita Schipano, Judy Mayfield, Belinda Govich, Bernice Thomas, Michelle Weiler, and many others – their names would fill pages. These colleagues, and many more, were the bookends that kept me upright as I tackled the daily challenges of school transportation. Their friendship, counsel and support were crucial to the success of the departments I was privileged to lead and manage.

One of the first things that became apparent to me in speaking with colleagues at local, state and national school transportation conferences was the universality of the problems we faced. Whether in the bustling city or a quiet suburban town, the school transportation issues echoed familiar themes. The perennial driver shortage, the lack of budgetary resources, the tug of war between unions and management, the ever-present road and, at times, parental rage our bus drivers, attendants, and office staff endure, the never-ending student management issues our bus attendants and drivers must contend with. The unfunded mandates and their impact on our ability to meet those mandates effectively and efficiently. The few rogue employees bent on doing things their way and counter to our ethos of safety, efficiency and teamwork. The issues of weather emergencies, staff shortages – where a few people work miracles to ensure the school bus shows up to pick up or discharge students – and a barrage of complaints from all directions, both inside and outside the organization. The demanding public (not all) who care not about the reality of our challenges. These are the constants in the school transportation profession.

I quickly learned that almost everyone outside of the school transportation department looks at transportation to solve their personal or professional challenges. The reality is that school transportation cannot be everything to everyone.

Yet, amidst the chaos, I discovered the diversity of colleagues. Most are extraordinary people, always willing to go the extra mile, and others (few and far between) indifferent, merely clocking in and out. It was a stark reminder that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. As a department leader, I am responsible for bridging the gaps and fostering a sense of unity, strength and purpose. Success is measured by winning one employee at a time and one battle at a time. Talking about diversity, our team, during these past ten years, increased the diversity of our department staff from a mere 1.4% to 7.1% to be more reflective of our community. We counted 15 different spoken languages; we truly are, as our superintendent would say, a miniature United Nations group.

Our singular mission, which is the safe transportation of our students, binds us together. School Transportation personnel are an eclectic group of people who come from not only different countries but also different professional backgrounds. Our department has former military people, teachers, airline clerks, disk jockeys, nurses, bank executives, electrical engineers, law enforcement, corrections officers, stay-at-home moms and dads, retirees from many different disciplines, and college professors, to name just a few. One has a Ph.D. and still lectures at over 20 universities and colleges on Animal Husbandry, but his love for transporting students is unequaled. I have found that, too often, the public looks down on these outstanding individuals as “just another bus driver or bus attendant.” Of course, the public is utterly wrong.

The importance of the district administration support became abundantly clear over the years. Without their backing, the already challenging task of running a school transportation department could have escalated to insurmountable heights. I was blessed to have administrations fully committed to supporting the department in the school districts I was a part of. This support, like a seedling, must be fed, watered and cared for so that it can bloom into a flower that everyone sees. It highlighted the crucial need for collaboration between different facets of the education system to ensure the smooth operation of our essential services.

Professional development emerged as a non-negotiable necessity. As a leader, I understood that investing in the growth and education of the entire transportation staff was not just a perk but a vital component of our success. Thank God for our Superintendent, Dr. L. Oliver Robinson, and my direct report, Ms. Kathleen Wetmore-Chase, who saw the benefit of investing in professional development; without their support, we would not have been able to increase our safety meetings from two to six per year. These safety meetings were crucial to the positive improvements our department experienced. It takes focused, concerted, relentless effort when we speak of creating cultural change within an organization. Cultural change does not occur in a vacuum; professional development focused on changing the mindset without offending and excluding is what it takes. Professional Development is not only about safety and efficiency, which are the daily anchors of our work, but also continuous process improvement. It is about empowering our colleagues to be the change agents we need. Allowing colleagues the freedom and empowerment to do their jobs as they see fit is the best policy.

Two important lessons I learned in the Marine Corps that I carried into the transportation profession are mentorship and operational continuity. I made sure, whether at Bethlehem Central or Shenendehowa Central, to mentor employees who showed leadership and managerial qualities. I helped open doors and pointed them in the directions needed for obtaining certifications and joining professional associations. This effort allows them to succeed and position themselves for the next level, be it a routing specialist, dispatcher, head trainer, assistant director, or any other non-driving position. As staff turned over, we always had others ready to fill in the gaps. The other important lesson is the continuity of operations. So often we allow key employees to retire or resign without ever capturing their corporate knowledge through the documentation of their daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly tasks or tracking their critical points of contact. In our operation, every office staff member must maintain a current “turnover folder” in an electronic format and share it with me so that I can ensure the information needed is there and updated as required. The turnover folder is key to making a hand off between the outgoing and incoming person a smooth transition. It also cuts down on the transition time it takes for the new person to spin up and be a productive member of the staff, and the most importantly, it captures the corporate knowledge gained over many years of service to the organization.

As a school transportation professional, I embraced a proactive mindset, choosing to be solution-oriented rather than reactive. Our internal metrics show being proactive paid dividends for us from drastic reductions in school bus accidents/incidents, student bus referrals, and intent to question employees for disciplinary purposes. We increased our fleet operation uptime and reduced road failures from over a dozen yearly to one or two. Every parent, administrator, and motoring public complaint is logged and investigated, with proper action taken when warranted. As the famous TV personality, Mr. Jon Taffer of the famous “Bar Rescue” would say, “I embrace solutions; I don’t embrace excuses.” Early in my career, it became clear that my role wasn’t just about managing crises or complaints but actively seeking ways to prevent them. Removing barriers hindering safety, efficiency, teamwork and morale became a priority in using my position and authority to effect positive change. I demanded solutions from myself and my immediate operations and administrative staff.

While we lead people, we also manage assets. To manage effectively, I learned that data is your best friend. We must be able to reduce our operation into snippets by analyzing its subsystem through the lens of data. Data is the fabric of an operation. We must understand the fabric in order to affect how we stitch it together to exact efficiencies and enhance safety. School transportation operations are complex; using data to paint a picture for the non-transportation decision-makers above you pays dividends during the budget process and fleet replacement decisions time or when capital improvement projects are needed.

I have followed the teachings of Dr. W. Edward Deming, “Deming’s 14 Points for Management and Total Quality Management”, which have served me exceedingly well. I became a firm believer in collecting data, establishing internal key performance indicators (KPIs), and using these KPIs to extract more efficiency and enhance safety throughout the transportation department. Indeed, in today’s data-driven world, utilizing KPIs is essential for effective management and decision-making. By collecting relevant data and establishing internal KPIs, you can gain valuable insights into various aspects of your transportation operations, such as bus on-time performance, fuel consumption, vehicle maintenance, bus technicians’ labor hour efficiency, and driver performance. These insights allow you to identify areas for improvement, implement targeted strategies, and track progress over time. Furthermore, data-driven decision-making enables you to optimize resource allocation, streamline processes, and ultimately enhance efficiency and safety. Whether through route optimization to reduce fuel consumption and emissions, implementing driver training programs based on performance metrics, or identifying potential safety hazards through data analysis, the possibilities for improvement are extensive. Continuously monitoring and analyzing your KPIs will enable you to adapt to changing conditions, identify emerging trends, and make informed decisions to drive continuous improvement within your transportation department. I encourage all my colleagues who are in leadership roles to work in harnessing the power of data to lead and manage effectively.

Transparency emerged as the best policy when dealing with internal and external customers. Whether dealing with staff, stakeholders or lawmakers, openness in communication builds trust and cohesion. Transparency removes doubt of others about you as well as any unfounded, biased opinions. Transparency in dealing with union leadership paid off positively. In my ten years working for my current district, we had five grievances; two were due to my decisions.

Leaders must be willing to stand up for their convictions. As a leader in the school transportation sector, I learned that I must be a voice and influence in the profession. I must have the strength of my convictions to speak uncomfortable truths to employees, administration, lawmakers, and peers alike. Advocating for school transportation at the local, state and national levels is extremely crucial. Fighting for common sense laws to enhance school bus safety and the professionalism of staff is worth every bit of the energy expended. At the same time, speaking truth to power when potential legislative bills or policies were not well thought out is just as crucial. I am absolutely sure I burned a few bridges along the way in my advocacy efforts. I do not regret it for a moment. As a leader, I do not fear individuals, and I do not fear systems. Fear for a leader can be very paralyzing. We have to learn to control our fear. Indeed, leadership often demands the courage to uphold one’s convictions, even in the face of adversity. Leaders who are steadfast in their beliefs inspire confidence and trust among their followers. However, it is essential for leaders also to be open-minded and receptive to feedback, as well as capable of adapting their convictions when presented with new information or perspectives. Effective leadership involves balancing, staying true to one’s principles, and remaining flexible enough to navigate complex situations.

Another lesson learned was that Transportation needed a seat at the table. We needed a voice and the ability to hear firsthand what the challenges of our district were so we could best support the educational efforts. Just as important, we needed to give and demonstrate to our transportation staff that we are here to support them. We actively sought ways to bridge the lack of trust between transportation and educational leaders as we sought better support, especially in student management and in how we valued our staff; they are the key cog to success.

Since we work in a safety-sensitive profession, holding employees accountable for violations of laws, regulations, policies, and procedures is essential for maintaining discipline and earning respect, the respect we need from our clients and colleagues. Our students and their families deserve nothing less, and many employees demand we hold our colleagues accountable if they fail to live up to the safety standards. The intentional failure of one reflects negatively on the goodness of all.

Fighting for respect for our profession is an ongoing battle. School transportation is often viewed as a necessary evil by others in the education sector. Part of my responsibility was to showcase the positive aspects of our work, emphasizing its crucial role in the larger educational ecosystem. The one constant about school transportation is this: the school bus is the window to education. Many children would not go to school if it were not for the iconic yellow school bus. Transportation played a huge role in returning our students to school during and after the Covid pandemic.

However, as the years rolled by, I could not ignore the personal toll. Long work hours and the inherent stress of the profession took a toll on me and my family life. The daily stress impacted my physical well-being. The sacrifices my wife and children made for my job’s demands were evident. I have come to realize as time progresses that, in the grand scheme, I would become a mere memory, a figment of people’s imagination as the system continued on without me, and continue it will. I often question whether all this stress was worth it. However, I hope the long hours, stress, frustrations, and happy and sad times are worth it. I want to think that I, with the help of our dedicated colleagues, improved the organization and left it in better shape. I hope the positive changes we made will be long-lived and a culture of safety for our children will be embedded in the system forever.

Ultimately, my 24 years in school transportation taught me that leadership goes beyond managing school transportation logistics; it is about people, resilience and leaving a positive impact that transcends the confines of our daily routines, all in the service of our most precious cargo, the children who are the future of our country. As my former assistant director of transportation, Bernice Thomas, would often say to prospective school transportation applicants, “You never know, you may be carrying the future president of the United States or the next Doctor who may be the one to save your life in the future.”

The singular personal satisfaction I experienced each and every day was when the last school bus delivered the last student and returned to base safely. I am heading towards my last bus stop in this noble profession we call School Transportation…thank you to all who stood by and helped me along the way.

Leave a Reply