AJUSD Transportation: High Quality, High Cost

Expert provides comprehensive analysis/recommendations for  Apache Junction Unified School District

By Dana Trumbull

High praise for transportation employees and specific recommendations for procedural improvements, policy implementation and professional development marked the November 28, 2017, Apache Junction Unified School District Governing Board’s Work Study Session, as Transportation Consultant Paul Novak presented an in depth analysis of the AJUSD transportation department. “I was very impressed by everyone I came in contact with here: the transportation department, the administration and business office and the human resources folks,” stated Novak. The lengthy report also included recommendations for increased efficiency and reduced costs.

“The key performance indicators support that the present transportation department falls within an appropriate quality program, but not an appropriate cost model,” continued Novak. “By comparison, a student transportation operation that is low quality, high cost would require major re-engineering. In this case, it won’t.” Specifically, Novak concluded that overall operational expenses per student, per mile, per day and per bus are well within industry norms, both nationally and locally; however, the operational costs as a percent of the total district budget (9%) is significantly higher than the industry norms, which average 3.9 to 5%.

Fleet Maintenance

Fleet maintenance received high marks in Novack’s report. “The fleet service work quality and reliability are good. The technicians are experienced and certified, and there is excellent support and cooperation among them.”

The AJUSD fleet, which averages 12.41 years of age, is 1 ½ times as old as the industry norm of 8.4 years (although not beyond the normal retirement range of 12.7-14.8 years). Novack credited the expertise and work ethic of the maintenance team for the relatively low occurrence of emergency road calls, despite the elderly fleet.

Analysis determined that maintenance and repair costs are higher than normal, but not unduly so, considering the age and size of the fleet. He did, however, recommend reducing the size of the 50 bus fleet by at least 7 of the oldest vehicles, noting that several of the buses routinely sit idle. Even so, by law, these buses must still be maintained and serviceable, which adds to department costs.

Policies and Procedures

In the area of policies and procedures, Novak praised department leadership for their intelligence and resourcefulness, as well as their “hunger to learn and improve,” but strongly suggested that written policies and procedures uniformly and consistently applied would help alleviate employee frustration and slow the nearly 80% annual employee turnover rate. “Formal written policies and procedures are either absent or not being used, and most of the directives are being done verbally. This can lead to uncertainty and distrust, claims of ignorance in the face of misconduct and things like that… everyone needs to operate off the same set of rules.”

To help the department (which Novak consistently referred to as “we”) move forward, he drafted nine different policies (dress code, attendance, clock hours, accident reporting, daily operational responsibilities, bus maintenance, etc.) and provided them to department leadership and district administration for adaptation to AJUSD. “By having all of those procedures in writing, there is little gray area for employees to claim ignorance.”

Another cause of employee dissatisfaction has been a feeling of lack of support from school administrators in the area of student discipline. “The student management program is unstructured and, in the past, has lacked consistent support from the individual schools in the district… Uniformity across the district is really important,” Novack insisted. “By not quickly, effectively, consistently and uniformly dealing with behaviors, you are encouraging them.”

Novack pointed out the correlation between student management and driver turnover. When drivers don’t feel supported by administration, they become frustrated; however, with an 80% annual turnover, many drivers are not employed long enough to learn effective student management skills, and thus require more administrative support than a school official might reasonably expect of an experienced driver, creating a cycle of mutual frustration.

The problem is compounded by the fact that, “it takes literally 2 months to replace a driver,” due to requisite screening, training and certification.

Technology

Several times throughout his presentation, Novack urged the deployment of digital surveillance systems for every bus. “For the cost of one new bus, you could have outfitted the entire fleet of 50, plus all the vans, with security surveillance systems,” he explained. “Cameras are a proven deterrent to student and driver misconduct, and when they do not deter, they certainly capture the behavior. Cameras can validate and administrate public, staff and student complaints, and they are a valuable resource when investigating complaints with other motorists in the event of an accident or other incident. Districts are inherently exposed to significant liabilities in the transportation department, and cameras are the single best insurance against disputes and claims.

“School bus GPS systems are used for after-the-fact and historical research, record-keeping and a valuable resource for transportation administration to tabulate speed, location and routing. GPS allows more accurate collection of state mandated data, and it offers excellent verification to insure drivers are performing their duty. Knowing that this data is being monitored, or at the very least is retrievable, is an incentive to encourage drivers to not deviate from the prescribed routes or to make unauthorized stops for students or themselves.”

Additional Cost Savings

Additional suggestions included reviewing special needs student IEPs (Individualized Education Programs). Currently, AJUSD has special needs aides assigned to nearly every special needs bus run. “The industry average is 50% of the runs. You may not be able to do that; however, 100% is pretty high.”

Bus washing is another area of concern. “It costs the district nearly $25,000 per year vs. maybe $5,000 to outsource.” Novack stated that, although he would only rarely recommend outsourcing the transportation department, this is one task that offers clear savings.

While praising the abilities of transportation office personnel to accurately track and utilize information internally, Novack blamed a lack of training for inaccuracies in data reported to the state Department of Education, which negatively impacts funding.

AJUSD bus routes currently stop at for-profit daycare centers that offer before- and after-school care. Most of those centers have vans and are able to transport students to and from school. “I recommend against that, except for our special needs students or district day care environments,” stated Novack.

“Suffice to say that, in all areas of student transportation programs where you can save money – fuel cost, fleet maintenance and others – none have the sizable impact that effective routing will produce,” Novack concluded. “The calculus here is very simple, if not the implementation; to safely transport as many students as possible with as few fleet resources as possible.” He commented that the efficiency of the operation is complicated by the four-day school week and simultaneous start times at the elementary schools, which make it more difficult to deploy buses on multiple runs.“ The upside is your bus occupancy utilization is pretty good, but we have more buses doing what fewer buses could do with other bell times.”

After the presentation, Board member Christa Rizzi commented, “It was incredibly refreshing to have a new set of objective eyes coming in, with no ties to the school district or transportation department, to share their findings. As a former school district employee who spent nine years in the AJUSD transportation department, I can confirm that Mr. Novak touched on every aspect that many of us have tried to relay to administration over the years.

“One point that really touched home is that often times employees in this department are not recognized as professionals, when the fact is that many of the individuals are highly educated, with college degrees. As a department that is often considered one not requiring professional development opportunities, Mr. Novak pointed out several issues that could easily improve and be rectified simply by providing professional development opportunities for office staff. This would result in better utilizing tools already in place and some cost savings with becoming more efficient.”

Novak was contracted in August to bridge the leadership void during Transportation Director Vicky Drennan’s six-week emergency medical leave, providing an opportunity to supplement his usual departmental analysis with an extended period of daily direction and interaction with departmental personnel and district leadership. Altogether, Novak invested 300 hours on the project.

Novak is president and CEO at Gauge Precision Consulting, LLC. His background includes 20 years of military experience in security, operations and logistics and 21 years as director of transportation at Tempe Elementary. Novak will continue to be available to advise AJUSD administration, operations and Board as needed throughout the year.

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