Tales From the Road: Transportation Department Turns Budget Shortfall into Surplus

As a Tyler Technologies employee, there’s nothing I like better than stories of school districts using Tyler products and seeing great success. Here’s a great story of a district that was facing huge overruns in their transportation budget, and who used Versatrans to save money — without reducing their service or laying off drivers.

The district hired a new director of transportation in 2012, and he inherited a sticky situation: a projected budget shortfall of $1.7 million! “The demographics of our community had dramatically changed,” explained the director, “resulting in our department failing to meet its budget over the last eight years. Transportation was bleeding funds from the district that were designated for other areas, causing leadership to begin the conversation about outsourcing our transportation.” It wasn’t hard for him to find the source of the budget overruns: “From day one on the job, I was told that we had buses running routes that have only a handful of students on them. If this was the case, certainly there were dollars to save. I could find the ‘low hanging fruit.’ But I needed to determine where else to make cuts.” The district had been a Versatrans customer for some time, but this director found that the program was not being utilized to address the efficiency problems.

This director used Versatrans to run reports, and surveyed the schools to make sure that his numbers for enrollment and ridership were all accurate. Once he was sure that he had the right data, he could tell his routers within extreme accuracy just how many vehicles each building would have access to, and how many students were expected to ride those buses. With that information, the district routers were able to design routes in Versatrans and analyze them to ensure that they maximized efficiency.

When analysis was complete the district was able to eliminate 31 routes, a reduction of approximately 10 percent. But these changes didn’t mean that families were feeling a loss of service. “Route timeliness greatly improved as all the routes were now staffed,” explained the transportation director. “Parents and students saw no negatives as a result of ridership changes or route times. In fact, the community and stakeholders were much happier with our efficiencies.”

Thanks to the savings in routing, the district was able to completely overhaul their transportation program. They sold 12 buses which were no longer needed, saving maintenance and insurance dollars and improving the ratio of mechanics to buses. In total, more than $500 thousand in costs were removed from the department’s budget within the first year. Their projected $1.7 million budget shortfall turned into a $50 thousand surplus at the end of the year! And best of all, the route reductions enabled them to fully staff their driver pool without any layoffs.

Congratulations to these dedicated transportation professionals for their success!

Don’t Just Say It, SHOW It!

In a few weeks, I’ll be celebrating my four-year anniversary as a Versatrans Account Rep here at Tyler Technologies. That’s four years I’ve spent working with transportation officials across the country. I’ve learned a lot in my time here and I’m still learning — but it sure didn’t take long for me to figure out just how challenging and dynamic school transportation is, and how many issues and details any given transportation department might be dealing with at one time. School transportation professionals really take the idea of “wearing many hats” to another level!

Let’s start with the core duty of the transportation department — just a little something called safely transporting the youth of America (very precious cargo) roundtrip to school every day. In attempting to complete this one essential duty, a few things could come up: accidents, bad weather, field trips, student disciplinary issues, redistricting, board meetings, breakdowns (mechanical and otherwise), state reports, issues with driver unions, community complaints, managing employees, contractors, inspections, certifications and maybe even a rare compliment… and on top of all this, the constant communication with district parents and guardians!

I used to walk amongst the ignorant. Luckily, I’ve been given the chance to be educated and I now know just how hardworking our customers are, and how transportation is very much at the heart of everything that goes on at the school district. Unfortunately, most people (inside and outside the district) will never know “what are they doing all day long?” In 2015 I would like our customers to get the credit they deserve.

Step one in getting the credit you deserve is obvious, yet overlooked by most. You’ve got to track what’s going on — the good, the bad, the ugly and the boring! It’s great that you’ve got it all in your head… unfortunately this leaves you without much actual documentation. What happened? Who was involved? What did you do about it? Once a few weeks pass, who the heck knows? When approached for information of any kind, instead of being caught off guard, winging it or having a panic attack, wouldn’t it be nice to have some documentation to back up your claims and help sort everything out? I’ll answer that for you: YES!

Based on the feedback I’ve heard, effectively tracking and managing incidents requires a program that is flexible, dynamic, and hardworking — just like our friends in transportation.

The start of a new year is the perfect time for all of us to start tracking how awesome we are.

Don’t just SAY it, SHOW it!

Remember When We Used to Call It High Tech?

I still remember getting my first PC at work (1988), my first email (1992) and even proudly showing my dad how I could instantly alphabetize a long list of names with my spreadsheet. In the beginning, technology seemed like a special, almost magical addition to our lives. Contrast that with the influence of technology on your typical workday today:

  • You draft all communications using a word processing program.
  • The vast majority of these communications are then shared through email, websites or social media.
  • You manage not only your budget but most aspects of your operation using a spreadsheet.
  • You have a full library of documents you can access at a moment’s notice.
  • You use an electronic calendar program to stay on schedule.
  • You rely on the internet of all things for daily critical business information.
  • You use financial and reporting platforms that communicate across your organization.
  • It is unthinkable to leave home without your smart phone.

We have reached the point where technology has become integrated into virtually every aspect of our daily and work lives.

In light of this evolution, it seems crazy that the notion persists that the purchase and use of software solutions — which are absolutely critical for us to perform our most important functions — are somehow standalone “IT” decisions.

Let me explain what I mean. How many times have you heard an on-the-ground employee say, “Oh, my boss does not use the software” or that their boss does not even know how to use the software? In my experience this is an all too common condition. And a damaging one! Any organization, including school districts, needs to have all members of the administration looking at and understanding the software that their employees use in their day-to-day work. Otherwise, how can an organization determine whether the program is meeting their needs, or being used to its full potential?

Effective leadership today means that we do not view our information technology as something separate from our core mission. “We’ll have to talk to IT about that” needs to be a sentiment from the past.

Effective leadership in 2015 means being a continuous learner. It means that we are constantly acquiring and improving upon our technical knowledge and capabilities. It means that we take the time to learn all the functional capabilities of our software solutions, becoming fully knowledgeable about what these tools can accomplish. It means that instead of frustration with technology we have the attitude of “let me try to figure this out.”

And, most importantly, it means we model this attitude for our staff. Instead of the behind the back mutters of “the boss does not use the software,” let’s start hearing that our administrators lead by example in the sophisticated use of technology to move our organizations forward.

We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident

Wikipedia tells us “A truism is a claim that is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning.”

I think we would all agree that our work as K-12 transportation professionals is filled with truisms, concepts that are so obvious or self-evident that we might find ourselves taking them for granted. This post explores eight of these truisms, documenting them so that we do not take them for granted but rather hold them up as shining examples of our vocations.

There are many different ways to be a transportation director

I’ve known transportation directors who were on the street every day. I’ve also known transportation directors who never left the office. Both styles were effective. One of the great qualities of our profession, but also one of the great challenges, is that there are almost as many styles of management leadership among our ranks as there are transportation directors. There is no one-size-fits-all model. Our charge is to find a management style that works for us, for our programs and, most importantly, for our students.

Our job is to help children access their education

We have the opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of the children we serve. Access to education is a critical ingredient in the successful educational experience of a child. Whether we are talking about school choice, rural areas or hazard zones, the support we provide allows children to access the educational opportunities they deserve.

We are a downstream service

The services we are required to provide are determined by someone else. The Student Assignment Plan sets the stage. Once placement occurs, eligibility for district-provided transportation then defines which students we transport. Support for students with an IEP completes our service requirements. Our job is to take the hand we are dealt and deliver our program with the optimum of efficiency while maintaining the safety and service levels expected.

A route either runs out of time or runs out of seats

We fill a bus up with children or we run out of time and have to head into school. One or the other of these two conditions is at play with every single run we create. Efficiency depends on our skillful balance of metrics such as students per run, students per mile and students per minute.

Never leave a child behind at a bus stop

Only bad things can happen if we refuse a child a ride at the morning bus stop. Whatever the cause for confusion, the bus stop is usually a bad place for resolution. Drivers should always get the child on the bus, call in on the radio to explain the situation and then be ready to assist school personnel with a resolution once they get that far.

Take them for a ride

Children are safe when they are on the bus because they are under the protection of the bus driver and, more importantly, we know where they are. There is no worse feeling than to hear from a parent that they are unsure where their child is. Anytime there is ever a question or uncertainty with the afternoon drop off, the bus driver is always correct to keep the child on the bus, call in to dispatch with the problem and “take them for a ride.” By taking the child for a ride, we keep the child safe, know where they are and are in a position to make a successful reunion with mom and dad later in the run or day.

Safety first, schedule second

The temptation to not fall farther behind is great when the driving is slow due to severe weather conditions. Of course it is important for a bus driver to be on schedule, but that compliance can never come through safety shortcuts. Safe transportation is always the primary responsibility of a bus driver.

Parents trust us with the very lives of their children

Keeping kids safe is the most important job that a school district has. Every day, parents hand over their most precious possession to a complete stranger at the bus stop. Parents do this because the bus driver has earned that trust by the way they protect children every day of their professional lives. In many ways this is almost a sacred duty. How do we respond to this responsibility? The answer will take us the rest of our careers to accomplish successfully. Simply put, we have to earn that trust every single day.

We do well to always remember that ours is a noble profession. This recognition of transportation truths is a reflection of the depth and breadth of the daily lives of those of us who have chosen to call ourselves “bus people.”

The Building Blocks of a Routing Plan

Remember the story of the Three Little Pigs? Piglet number one builds his house out of straw and the wolf is able to blow it right down. Piglet number two builds his house out of wood, certainly better than straw, but the wolf is also able to blow it down. Piglet number three takes the time to build his house out of bricks, making it strong enough to withstand the dangers posed by the wolf, and thereby providing safety and security for his less thoughtful brothers. Building a quality routing plan is a lot like the lessons we learn from this story of the Three Little Pigs.

Think of the steps we use to build a quality house. First off, we determine our budget, so that we can appropriately match our design, size and materials to the amount we can afford to spend. We then enter the planning phase, drawing up a blueprint of how, where and when the parts will go together to create our new home. We identify quality materials that will complement our plan and budget. We then find builders who are able to use the materials according to the plan and within the project’s budget. We eventually move in and enter the phase of maintenance and updates to keep our house in good condition. We might even entertain the thought of a remodel or addition someday to add capacity and value to the original plan for the house.

Now compare this process to how we build a routing plan.

First off, we determine our budget, so that we can appropriately match our transportation policy to it. This will determine who is eligible for district-provided transportation, how far they might have to walk to get to a bus stop, and how many and what size buses best match the amount our district and community is able to afford. We then enter the planning phase, identifying the components of our transportation plan such as policy and service delivery models. We identify quality ingredients that match our plan and budget, specifically what kinds of transportation management solutions will best help us to create and operate a quality program. We then hire and train staff who are able to use the tools provided to deliver a quality routing plan that matches our district’s goals. The new school year starts and we shift to maintaining our routing plan, correcting problems and improving our program. We might eventually entertain the thought of an addition such as a fleet maintenance program or telematic GPS to add capacity and value to our transportation program.

A well built house provides us with shelter, comfort and security, all necessities for our wellbeing. A well managed routing plan likewise provides our transportation program with safety, service and efficiency, all critical ingredients for our district.

Thinking of your routing plan in terms of a series of building blocks is a great way to build or transition your transportation program into the kind of operation that can withstand even the biggest wolves of this world.

Happy New Year!

Summer is a busy time in transportation offices. School details are firmed up, students are identified, runs are built and assigned to routes, drivers are hired, certified, trained and assigned, parents and schools are notified, and the million details that somehow need to be done get done on time.

This summer I had the distinct pleasure of working in several transportation offices as all of the above was occurring. It has been five years since my days in the Buffalo offices and the chance to relive and continue with that excited buzz was a wonderful feeling. It is a time of phones ringing, of clerks sorting through student data, of drivers stopping in to get their paperwork in order, of directors answering never ending questions, of buses getting fixed up and ready to go, and of prep meetings being scheduled and conducted. The annual countdown to school opening is a time filled with preparation, anticipation, commitment and determination.

But all good things must end. The busy summer is over. School has started all around the country.

Many school districts start in August. School districts in my area of the Northeast generally start just after Labor Day. Charter schools are expanding the concept of the traditional 180 day school year with even earlier starts.

Binders and new sneakers have been bought. Kids have answered the inevitable questions from well-meaning relatives on their feelings about summer being over and school starting again. The AAA has conducted its annual “School’s Open, Drive Carefully” campaign and media coverage of the start of the new school year is extensive.

Even though we just described an incredibly intense period of activity, the actual start of the new school year is the time when we really settle down and get to work. When we start to do those critical day to day things that do so much to support our children’s education. When a well planned bus ride, with a professional bus driver, who shows up on time, at a well chosen bus stop, and keeps the not overly crowded bus under control on their efficiently laid out path to their on time arrival at school makes the perfect start to a child’s day. The reality of that vision is really why we can say Happy New Year.

Here is wishing you a safe and efficient transportation program for the 2014/15 school year as the wheels on your buses go ‘round and ‘round.

Tales from the Road: After Disaster, Versatrans Helped Joplin Schools Adapt to Ever-Changing Needs

I’ve told stories of client successes here on the Tyler K-12 Viewpoints blog before, but I’ve never had the opportunity to tell a story quite like this one before.

On Sunday, May 22, 2011, a tornado that, at its maximum, grew to be nearly one mile wide, struck the city of Joplin, Missouri. Nearly 25 percent of the city was destroyed by the tornado, and 75 percent of the city reported damage. Joplin Schools sustained loss and damage to several of their schools, and the high school was damaged beyond repair. The high school was relocated to a temporary facility beginning in the 2011-2012 school year.

The Joplin Schools transportation program has been using the Versatrans transportation management suite to facilitate their routing since 2004. While, of course, no technology could provide a “solution” to the effects of the tornado, Versatrans was useful to the district in responding to the disaster. They did not need to implement any specific disaster recovery software, but were able to continue using the same program they had for years, in a new way.

Take a look at this video, which tells the story of the bravery of the Joplin Schools transportation staff as they responded to the disaster, and their resiliency as they adapted to challenges during the recovery. I know I speak for everyone here at Tyler Technologies when I say that I am humbled by the knowledge that our Versatrans software played even a small role in helping Joplin in its recovery.

Leadership Is IN You

Have you ever met someone you respected from the very moment you met them? Have you ever experienced the opposite? Let’s take a moment to compare those two experiences and examine what made those situations different.

I like to think that it comes down to two key traits: authenticity and purpose.

This blog post is for everyone, not just people who manage other people. Let’s dig in…

Authenticity
Authenticity boils right down to being real. Being true to who you are and allowing others to actually see that. People want to know what makes you tick, what motivates you and what you are passionate about. We can all detect someone who is insincere a mile away. And contrary to what traditional thinking may dictate, being real, being vulnerable and letting people get to know the real you is perhaps the best way to establish trust. Even if they don’t like something about you, they at least know who and what they are dealing with. People who don’t know you are people who spend a lot of time making assumptions, drawing their own conclusions and that fear, uncertainty and doubt about a manager or even a coworker can have an incredibly negative effect on productivity and morale.

Purpose
Why do you do what you do? Do you love your job, or are you showing up and going through the motions just so you can make it through the day and go home? Do you come to work intent on making a name for yourself and ensuring that you are viewed in a positive light by others? Alternately, are you focused on the positive impact your work has on others? Do you find joy in getting kids to school and back home safely? Are you energized when you see someone else doing a good job? Or are you focused on yourself, your day, your job, your advancement, your success? Here’s one of the greatest secrets of effective leadership, and it boils down to one word: others. If you focus on the well-being of others, that selflessness will come back to you in dividends.

This applies to everyone!
Notice that I have made no distinctions here between people who manage other people and people who work as individual contributors on a team. That’s because we all have the capacity to be leaders. That is to say, the way that we approach our jobs, and our lives in general, can have an immediate, direct impact on others, no matter what our position is.

How many times have you encountered a dysfunctional team and wondered just where they went wrong? Perhaps the poor behaviors are coming from the team manager directly. I think that more often, one of the team members is the source of the poor attitude and morale. That person just isn’t stepping up and being a leader. Of course, in those cases, I believe that the team’s manager still shares in the responsibility for the behavior of that team, because it’s the manager who is tolerating the poor behavior and negative influencers.

Now think of a highly productive team: they may have a great manager, but it’s likely that what makes that manager great is that his or her focus is on building the right team composed of people who themselves have positive leadership qualities, such as prioritizing the success over the team above their own.

Leadership is in all of us
If great leadership is about caring for others and prioritizing their needs over your own, then one could argue that great leadership is a matter of heart. What is in your heart? Are you authentically yourself? What your sense of purpose? Are you serving others or are you serving yourself? Once your heart is in the right place, leadership suddenly becomes a great deal more natural and effective, and it doesn’t matter if you are a director, a manager, a supervisor, team lead or team member. Just as sure as you have a heart, so too is leadership IN you.

Agree or disagree? Share your experience here!

Georgia District Shows How They Use Data Analytics

Recently we here at Tyler Technologies were contacted by one of our clients, Barrow County School System in Georgia, letting us know that they had done something pretty incredible. They use our data analytics program, Tyler Pulse, and they found it so useful that they decided to create their own client testimonial video talking about their positive experience with it.

We are beyond delighted with this video, firstly because we are so glad that Barrow County School System has been well-served by our products. But also because this is a great example of a district communicating about the solutions they’ve implemented and sharing their success with the community. Here on the K-12 Viewpoints Blog, we always try to keep our posts informative and useful, and we don’t focus too much on our own products. This video provides a real-world example of a district implementing a solution that works for them, and which could work for others. When we see how our peers are solving problems we can draw on that example and make a more informed decision down the road. In that way, we feel that this video will be useful to you.

You can decide for yourself, of course. The video is embedded below. Take a look!

Efficiency versus Effectiveness

I recently witnessed a fascinating discussion at a conference that has had me thinking ever since. A K-12 support professional stated that it was her responsibility to be as effective as possible when providing services for students in support of their educational goals. A peer immediately responded that he felt that it was his duty to support the educational process as efficiently as possible. What was the difference between these two positions and who was right?

The Google definition of effective is “successful in producing a desired or intended result.” The definition of efficient is “achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” Two similar adjectives, but two very different concepts in relation to our work.

Effectiveness is a strategic goal; efficiency is a tactical goal.

As budgets crumble, we spend a lot of time in K-12 lately talking about efficiency. But what if we are being efficient at something that is not effective? How does that benefit students?

Some examples of efficiency versus effectiveness include:

  • The national norm is to start high schools on the first tier of bell times because this is the most efficient in terms of busing. But is this effective in terms of a teenager’s learning abilities?
  • We hear “keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible” in practically every budget discussion these days. But do service cuts in the name of efficiency negatively affect a student’s full education experience? And could that possibly impact the effectiveness of their schooling?
  • At my former district there was an open enrollment policy, where children were able to apply to every school in the district. Transportation was provided based on distance eligibility, and it was my job to make sure that this transportation ran as efficiently as possible. But the district never studied whether or not this type of student assignment plan was effective in terms of student achievement.

The single most important characteristic of effectiveness is that it needs to answer the “So what?” question. In the above example, district leadership could boast that a student can attend any school in the district. The follow up to this statement should be, “So what?” Does this lead to higher student achievement? Perhaps so, but without analysis this is just a guess.

The most important “So what?” of K-12 education is student achievement. District leadership needs to be able to measure student achievement by individual characteristics and program types so that the most effective practices can be defined and advanced. Once the decision-makers determine which efforts best support student achievement, then support services can focus on delivering these efforts as efficiently as possible.

True efficiency can only start after true effectiveness is determined. We are just spinning our wheels if we are being efficient at something that is not effective. The clock is always ticking for our students and we can’t afford to be following ineffective practices, no matter how efficiently we can do them. Our students don’t have time for us to be guessing about their future.