I sat down with Andy J. Martin, who recently retired after 37 years in the field of student transportation. He began his career in 1980 as the Coordinator of Transportation at a small district, and by 1987, he was working as the Transportation Director at Elgin U-46, the second largest school district in Illinois. He remained there for the next 30 years.

It was an honor to sit down with someone as dedicated to K-12 transportation as Andy, and we had a wonderful conversation about his long, successful career.

During your 30-year career at Elgin, what significant changes had the most impact on your operation?

When I began in 1987, I was responsible for all functions of overseeing a transportation department that consisted of approximately 150 school buses, responsible for transporting K-12 at that time along with the entire Special Ed population for the district. Over the years, the district grew considerably. At the end of my career, I was responsible for all facets of a transportation department that grew to 354 buses and approximately 400 employees.  We continued to transport all of the Special Ed population along with the addition of pre-K.

How important was it for you and your operation to keep up with new advances in technology?

It was extremely critical. The last district I was employed with was growing at such a fast pace. Utilizing the latest technology wasn’t an option; it was a necessity. When I began in this field, I developed routes with push pins, colored yarn and a map on the wall behind my desk. Fortunately, through technology, we were able to advance to computerized routing software, trip scheduling software, vehicle maintenance software, on board video, and GPS, and the buses themselves have truly advanced over time. Also within those years, computer, phone, and radio technology have come a long way. Advances in weather forecasting have also helped tremendously.

Besides weather, what obstacles did you face on a day-to-day basis that made it difficult to provide service?  

The primary obstacle was just day-to-day traffic congestion, which was then compounded due to accidents and road construction. Many of these were unpredictable, unannounced, and forced us to react to the situation with the parental expectation that the buses would still run on time.

There was no formal training for this job, correct?

This training was obtained through hands-on experience and the school of hard knocks.

Can you please share how you or someone else could be successful in such a stressful environment?

It requires a team. A group of people who were dedicated, knowledgeable, and willing to do what it took to ensure the highest level of service. My role was to lead by example and make certain that the team was allowed the opportunity to be a part of discussions, decision-making, and overall input to reach our goal daily.

There were several things that were important to me each day, and it was critical that I demonstrate the importance of those items. I never allowed myself to become complacent and I approached each day knowing there were three goals that must be achieved: student safety, fleet maintenance, and efficiency to stay fiscally responsible to the taxpayers we serve.

It sounds very stressful, but I imagine there were rewarding moments.

As difficult as the job was, there were rewarding moments every day. If it wasn’t something significant that took place during the day, it was the overall satisfaction knowing at the end of the day that the team safely transported over 26,000 students to and from school.

I know it can seem like a thankless job. What do you want people to know about transportation professionals that have never worked in this field?

That it is a challenge and unless you live it, you can’t fully understand. There are so many pieces to a transportation operation that must come together every day to be a successful. When you experience road closures, traffic delays, construction that was unannounced, these obstacles have to be dealt with. Sometimes, you fly by the seat of your pants, realizing parents and children are still waiting for the bus.

Unlike the airlines or railway, in the field of pupil transportation, we don’t have the luxury of cancelling flights and routes due to uncontrollable obstacles. For us to cancel a route is inexcusable. Thank goodness, that with today’s technology we are able to better justify and demonstrate to the public why such delays take place. It’s through our GPS and videos on the buses that allow us to be transparent and provide an accurate explanation on why routes run late from time to time.

How did you deal with budget constraints while also supplying your staff with the latest technology?

Do your homework. We know that today’s technology continues to change and improve. It is critical that you justify your purchase by demonstrating the return on investments and, through the utilization of the product, the improved service for students.

What advice would you give to a first year TD?

  • Interview and listen to the staff that have been involved in the operation prior to your arrival.
  • Build a team and be an active team member.
  • Realize and recognize that every job within the operation is critical for the overall success of the team.
  • Continue to research and implement new products and technology to assist those working endless hours to achieve the monumental task put on them.
  • Walk the walk. Be involved. Get out from behind the desk, not just to supervise, but to help. Help the mechanics on early start-ups due to weather. Help dispatch. Be a part of the day-to-day operation and lead by example.

Andy, thank you for your 37 years in the industry and to all those who provide this valuable service to our communities. You are not just leaders but heroes as well.

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