The busing of children to and from school and their education in the classroom has been, at least in the public’s view, two somewhat related but basically separate activities.
In fact, says Mike Simmons (above, left), president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, “In years past there hasn’t been a whole lot of collaboration on the national level between our association and the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).”
This collaboration is now necessary, Simmons is convinced, as is AASA President Benny L. Gooden. It bodes well that Simmons, as state director of transportation in Arkansas, and Gooden, as superintendent of the Fort Smith Public Schools in Fort Smith, Ark., have a long, productive relationship of working together.
Simmons, who started at the Department of Education in 1984, has been involved in several different aspects of education. For a number of years he worked in and later ran a risk management association, which insured schools and school districts. Simmons, who became state director of transportation in 2000, says in Arkansas, transportation isn’t funded per se, so he relies on local administrators to understand and embrace the fact that transportation is an integral part of the education system, rather than just an ancillary function.
Simmons is also a member of AASA, so he plays a dual administrator role. But now on the national level, in view of the current economic, political climate and other issues, Simmons says he feels it’s imperative that NASDPTS promotes a similar concept of the integral relationship between transportation and education. He acknowledges that, in the past, NASDPTS tended to drill down to strictly transportation issues. Yet, now it’s promoting the fact that the yellow school bus is a vitallink in the education system.
The association is working with the American School Bus Council to reach out to the school administrators via letters to chief state school officers on common issues, which today encompass just about all those affecting education. These include budgets, fuel costs and state policy changes, such as California’s most recent attempt, though unsuccessful, to cut transportation funding to address state’s budget deficit.
“What we’re trying to publicize is that, if we can’t get the students to school, we can’t educate them. There are so many issues now that students face,” Simmons says. “You have to get them to school so they can eat breakfast. Kids are living farther away from school, and both parents are working more. So there are a lot of kids that, if we didn’t transport them, would never get to school. So we’re joining forces with any education association we can to try to solve these issues.”
But perhaps the main issue has to do with regulations. Simmons refers to the fact that student transportation is being increasingly bombarded with more federal and state regulations, such as environmental issues related to school buses.
“Emission standards now in place have added thousands and thousands of dollars to the cost of buses,” says Simmons. “Yes, of course, we want to see newer and more economical buses on the road. But we have all these additional costs without ways to pay for them. So we’re still seeing older buses on the road. I’m sure, from the administrators’ standpoint, they feel the same way. Not just transportation but the entire education system is being over-regulated.”
Gooden has 37 years experience as a school superintendent, 26 of those years at Fort Smith and the balance in rural Missouri. He agrees with Simmons on the issue of over-regulation.
“What always affects superintendents are issues that cost money,” Gooden says. “Federal regulations add to our costs. We have a limited amount of dollars, whether it’s an equipment requirement, operational or labor rules. The big issue for transportation now is fuel costs.”
Many of the federal issues become local issues. Costs might be a little higher in one state and lower in another, but often have about the same impact. He says a new clean-diesel engine specification might add another $5,000 per bus.
“Nobody’s against improvements, but the question is, what do they do to the bottom line?” Gooden says. “What you have to realize is that some schools own their own bus fleets and others contract out to independent bus companies. But additional requirements all relate in some way to the bottom line.”
Then, beneath the federal rules there are the rules in 50 different states. Some states require two stop arms on buses. Some states require the one rear emergency door, while others allow additional doors. A hot-button issue that Gooden is tracking is whether school buses should have safety belts. Some states require them, and some do not.
“There are all these nuances. It all gets back to costs,” Gooden maintains while recognizing the need for safety regulations. “We’re always looking at accident prevention, and we have a big focus on driver training and retraining.”
Several Arkansas children were killed a few years ago after they departed their buses and then walked in front of them. The bus drivers didn’t see the kids and hit them. So, administrators mandated cross-over gates, which NHTSA has yet to require, to force the children to walk far enough in front of the bus so the driver can see them.
“Federal (and state) standards are always under review, and they usually go back to school design and safety,” Gooden says. “Many people don’t remember that several decades back, Dr. Frank Cyr at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York City initiated the idea that school buses should all be the same standard yellow chrome color. Before that, there were no standard colors for school buses.”
Still, Gooden says, there is a potential for conflict between the superintendents and transportation. The transportation advocate, for example, might think something is extremely important in terms of operational efficiency, equipment design or safety. The superintendent, while sensitive to these matters, is also accountable to the public on just how to pay for it.
“It’s just like everything else: you have to find a good, common ground,” Gooden says. “We are not Congress. We understand how to compromise, and we plan to stay that way. I think one thing you’ll find superintendents have in common is that they want to provide the best education and best transportation for students at the lowest cost.”
“I think we’re in a critical time,” says Simmons, “and not just in transportation, but education too. In this era of budget cuts and tight money, I think our job is to truly promote not just the safety aspects of school buses, but their environmental and educational impacts as well.”
Reprinted from the April 2012 edition of School Transportation News. All rights reserved.