Embracing Destiny

0
18

Dr. Linda Fran Bluth has circled a date on her calendar: July 1, 2009.

It’s the day she’ll retire after a 45-year career as a special education advocate, educator, author and team builder. Her national contributions to special needs transportation have earned her high honors and deep respect in the industry. Despite her pending retirement, she’s only just begun.

At 64, she’s turning a new chapter as industry leader for the National Association for Pupil Transportation. Last October, the NAPT membership voted her as president-elect, a two-year apprenticeship under the organization and current President Bill Tousley.

Upon her retirement from the Maryland State Department of Education next year, she’ll begin the transition to NAPT board president. Unlike other NAPT presidents who wore multiple hats during their pupil transportation day jobs, Linda has vowed to serve as a full-time volunteer.

“If she wants a desk here, we’ll have extra office space,” said NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin. “We’re thrilled. She knows a lot — regulatory, special needs and the bigger picture in general. She brings a unique discussion to us.”

Added Tousley, who is also the transportation director at Farmington Hills Public Schools outside Detroit, “She’s going to do a great job and has a lot of knowledge. It enhances what we already have.”

Her’s may seem like a deliberate career path to becoming one of the nation’s foremost experts on special needs and transportation. However, Linda and her family chalk it up to “Bashert.”

The Bluth Mantra

The Yiddish dictionary defines the word “Bashert” as “destined.” Though oftentimes used in romantic connotations to denote one’s soulmate, the Bluth family from Brooklyn, N.Y., suspected Linda’s destiny was to become a champion for people with disabilities.

In giving her middle name Fran, Linda’s parents — Jacob and Selma Bluth — bended the Jewish tradition of honoring immediate family members. Instead, they named her after a deceased cousin who suffered from a seizure disorder. They feared Francis Friedman would be forgotten, so they entrusted Linda to carry her name forward.

“They didn’t have medication to control the seizures (in the 1940s),” explained Linda. “She got worse and disoriented. As a result, she went to a school (in New Jersey) for individuals who were retarded. My mother always took a long bus ride to visit her.

“My mother loved Francis. I’m proud of the name. She was a beautiful child.”

As a child, Linda befriended a girl bound to a wheelchair. While the girl had physical limitations and needed to be tended to, Linda found the goodness in her. She still has fond memories of their playtime.

“Differences are not deficits,” she explained.

Selma Bluth recognized her daughter’s gift of compassion and predicted that Linda would one day work with the handicapped. Both parents instilled a hard work ethic into their daughter. Her father departed Poland for the United States in 1939, just as World War II was breaking out in Europe. He found success as a businessman, and showed his family how to appreciate opportunities.

Years later, Linda came upon an unfortunate situation that turned out to be an opportunity. She crossed paths with a family who didn’t have a way to transport their young girl to school because she was unable to control her bladder. The girl’s mother worked long hours in a factory, and the district didn’t know how to address the issue. So, Linda volunteered to drive the girl to school each day until the matter could be resolved.

“Back then, buses were scarce. Transportation was the missing link to get special education kids to school,” she explained.

She had witnessed first-hand the inequalities that people faced when trying to access education. And it made an impression on her forthcoming career.

While Linda’s father didn’t understand her passion for school transportation, specifically, he was proud of her and encouraged her endeavors.

Distinctive Career Route

Linda’s own career models the milestones achieved since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975. That law guarantees free appropriate public education (FAPE) and related services to children with disabilities, including necessary transportation. Linda Bluth was just getting into the mix at the time of its passage, and today she works tirelessly to enforce its principles.

During the 1960s and 1970s, she took a deep interest in education with an emphasis on mental retardation, emotional disturbance and learning disabilities. She received full scholarships at colleges known for special education programs, which she aimed as her specialty. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the College of Emporia in Kansas, her master’s degree from the Kansas State Teachers College and her doctorate from the University of Illinois in Champaign.

The early years of her career were spent as a college professor in special education at the University of Alabama. In 1976, Bluth moved to Maryland, where she held academic and government positions. As director of Maryland’s Office of Quality Assurance and Monitoring, she ensures public agencies and local systems are compliant with federal and state regulations for students with disabilities. She guides a multi-million dollar state budget through appropriation committees, and her knack for numbers and organization has helped state colleagues realize savings.

“We saved money just by making our budget uniform,” said colleague Dorie Flynn, who also sits on the board of the Council of Affiliated State Associations. “Using guidelines on costs in categories. It shows a need for process.”

“She’s always been involved in issues,” added Carol Ann Baglin, Maryland’s assistant state superintendent, who has worked with Bluth for more than two decades. “When people first meet her, they don’t understand the strength and breadth.”

That was the case for the state’s current pupil transportation director. Ed Beck met Linda when he was leading the school transportation department in Harford County. As a state employee, Linda went against the county’s view of entitlement for a particular child with disabilities. With persistence and judiciousness, she and Beck worked out their differences.

“She works great under pressure. She’ll work through something until it’s complete,” said Beck. “I love transportation, because everyone says what they think. Safety is the first concern. Linda takes the same stance.”

Typically, Linda will go to the source of an issue, even if it means driving hundreds of miles to see the situation first-hand. She’ll talk with parents, meet with bus drivers, watch the students, check the equipment — whatever it takes to reach the safest transportation solution.

“Sometimes it’s heartbreaking for families. We have to explain the safety factor,” she explained. “I’m a very a hands-on person. If you’re going to tell someone to fix something, it has no validity if you don’t know how to do it.”

Going National

As her supervisor, Carol Ann Baglin encouraged Linda to share her knowledge with a wider audience.

“It’s hard to work in a large bureaucracy, so I believe in seeking opportunities to share experiences,” said Baglin.

Linda has been on the road for years to influence and advocate safe transportation for children with disabilities. She has presented at conferences in no less than 42 states and throughout Canada. She’s published more than 90 articles (many for School Transportation News) and five books on transportation, including three editions of Transporting Students with Disabilities, a desktop essential for transportation leaders. And she’s presented 17 times at NAPT annual conferences since becoming a member in 1981.

Much of this was done solo. Then, through an introduction by STN Publisher Bill Paul, Linda found her presentation “soul mate,” attorney Peggy Burns. It was in 1995 at the conference for Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers.

“I thought they would be good together,” said Paul, who has chronicled the industry and knows all the personalities in the business.

Today, Bluth and Burns frequently share the podium at industry conferences. As a duo, they share expertise to help the industry understand laws, regulation, entitlement and compliance to protect children. By the nods and laughs from their audiences, these women connect and share best practices with humor.

“Presenting with her is like singing with your favorite group,” said Burns, who’s also co-published many papers with Linda. “She’s the comic of the team. I think her pleasure in life is to stump me. But I’m a lawyer and can usually come up with an answer.” During the NAPT Conference last fall, Linda took to a different stage with campaign flyers, key chains and nail files. She made a plea to the NAPT membership for the president-elect position. She promised to “go toe-to-toe with Washington bureaucrats” (within close proximity of her Baltimore home) and to place a vendor on the NAPT board.

“NAPT is the marketplace, and vendors are part of that community. I think it’s the right time to bring a vendor to the board,” she said.

And she vowed to listen to all stakeholders, including all NAPT members, past presidents, school bus drivers, parents, vendors and state directors. At the ballot box on the NAPT Trade Show floor, the membership entrusted her with building bridges and continually pushing the safety agenda for all children. Her success came on the last day of the conference. For the next year and a half, she’ll prepare for her next mission in school transportation.

A Reflection

Linda chuckles when she thinks about her father’s question of why she has never “out-grown her fascination” for school buses.

It was more about the cheerful yellow. Linda’s drive all along is to connect students to education, no matter who they are or how they live. By putting her trust into people who would otherwise be ignored, Linda has lived a full life and career.

“Life is what you put into it. What you strive to do. How you contribute. It’s also luck,” she said.

And “Bashert.”

Reprinted from the February 2008 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.