Transportation Mixes Old, New to Bridge Communication Gap


As the school year begins, transportation directors are no longer dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s on important pre-launch communications to parents but now are inputting them on computers, cell phones and automated calling systems.

While electronic methods may be the fastest way to transmit information, they are not always the best choice, noted Peter Lawrence, transportation director for Fairport Central School District (N.Y.).

“I make sure I’m at kindergarten orientations and PTSA meetings. These are prime opportunities to connect with parents and the community to really sell your department,” said Lawrence. “We have to put parents’ mind at ease, because they are giving their most precious possession to strangers.”

Lawrence said every time he makes a connection he tries to promote the transportation department and what it stands for — safety. Fairport CSD currently runs 120 buses to and from eight school campuses, transporting more than 7,000 students daily.

“I am very fortunate to have a great staff who are very personable and who do a great job of handling complaint calls before they run up the chain. It’s important to be an attentive listener when parents or community members are upset,” he continued. “In this time of budget cuts, transportation departments need to ensure they are providing excellent customer service.”

Communication Builds Trust

Websites do have a place in the customer service equation, added Lawrence, who has been working to improve his department’s own online presence.

“My goal is to make it easy for parents to access the information they need and also other data, such as the percentage of on-time arrivals or perfect attendance,” Lawrence said. “Let the community know we are tracking this data. Give them a snapshot. This could be a great PR tool.”

Brian Whitta, transportation director for Bowling Green (Ohio) City Schools, said his district’s year-old Facebook page has proven to be an effective tool, especially for communicating with parent-teacher organizations.

“If you think you’re over-communicating, you’re not. It’s easy to get lost in the daily grind and to forget that you are in a public service environment,” said Whitta.

In a school district spanning 118 square miles, Whitta said he often works from his personal truck, staying connected via phone and e-mail. His department transports about 3,700 public and non-public school students daily. In the case of school closures or another event, he said he has several options for getting the word out.

“Transportation is one of those environments where you can’t possibly tell people enough good things about what you’re doing, whether it’s through the district website, a mailer or using an automated calling system,” said Whitta, a former transportation consultant at the Ohio Department of Education. “Making sure parents know the good things you do really helps to dilute those situations when you don’t have the best news to share. That’s the way we build trust in the service we’re providing.”

Putting a Face on Transportation

Transportation Director and NAPT Board Member Launi Schmutz said that proactive communication can ease parents’ concerns and prevent a firestorm. After she learned that the Washington County (Utah) School District would not receive as much county funding this school year to provide busing for ineligible students, she immediately phoned the affected families.

“I called the parents to tell them, and they were in shock, but it kept them from getting angry with us. It settled things down. The challenge would be greater if I didn’t know and [didn’t] catch it early. It’s a lot more difficult to put out fires once they start,” said Schmutz. “The biggest challenge is when parents don’t let us know about a concern because then it festers throughout the neighborhood.”

In a school district with more than 21,000 students, she said complaints spread quickly on the rumor mill. While she does use social media to interact with her drivers and staff, Schmutz still prefers speaking with parents.

“E-mails have changed transportation considerably. When I get an e-mail from parents, I still call them back on the phone rather than e-mail back because I think it’s more personable,” Schmutz said.

With more than 20 years in student transportation, Schmutz noted that, despite technological advances, the human touch is key to customer service. Particularly in these tough economic times, her drivers and staff always try to show empathy to parents.

“We tell our staff to listen and don’t provide feedback if someone’s mad — just let them vent. In the end, offer solutions and say you’ll work on it,” Schmutz continued. “It’s what we’re all about: community service. They’re taxpayers, and they’re our patrons. It’s a good thing that they call and let us know…it’s an opportunity.”

Transportation Director Nicole Portee of Denver Public Schools said her large district was divided into seven regions to address the needs of 80,000 students at 166 schools. Portee and her staff often attend Community Engagement meetings to “join in the conversation” with different communities.

“It’s important to put a face to transportation outside of the bus and our drivers and to be able to answer any questions. Transportation can be a factor in community’s perception of a school,” said Portee.

To maintain open communication, she emphasized that transportation departments need to raise awareness about the nuts and bolts of transporting students.

“You have to educate your community about transportation and all that’s involved. We do our work behind the scenes. We’ve depended on the yellow buses to do our advertising, but, essentially, it’s getting out in the community and addressing the hard questions,” Portee said. “You need to listen to your community, because that’s the only way to get better.”

As DPS prepares for the new school year, some schools have invited transportation representatives to come in and provide safety information.

“Face-to-face contact initially works, and then you can intertwine social media. But if you rely on social media as a solution, it’s not as effective because people won’t understand the context of what they’re reading,” she continued. “We’ve tried to make our information reader-friendly by using terms that work not just in English but also in Spanish.”

Although the website may be the fastest way to inform parents, Portee said that school bus drivers and the students themselves are also great messengers.

“What we’ve found is if we go to Back-to-School-Night meetings and talk about safety, we educate the students and they will remind the parents. So that’s another avenue of communication,” added Portee.

Pinellas County Schools (Fla.) also keeps the lines of communication open with everything from postcards to web posts, according to Transportation Director Rick McBride, who oversees the transport of about 32,000 students daily. Like Portee, McBride said his department often uses the “tried and true way” of having school bus drivers relay vital information to parents.

“Throughout the school year, routes and times do change, so even though the school notifies them, the driver also lets them know — ensuring that parents personally got the information. Sometimes it’s a little bit more difficult to ensure this because the only feedback we get is when a parent calls wondering where the bus is,” said McBride.

Because his department receives most feedback via telephone, McBride decided years ago to expand the transportation call center, which is manned by six staff members year-round, and additional help is available when school begins. He noted that specialized software tracks all of the issues parents bring to their attention.

“We can go back six years ago to see if we had similar issues or concerns,” McBride said. “We try to keep customer service as number one, and the call center has really elevated our transportation department. It has let us be more efficient and economize things, especially when we’re cutting budgets.”

Reprinted from the September 2011 edition of School Transportation News. All rights reserved.