In Ohio, Ex-Mechanic Keeps School Buses in Gear
- Expertise: Transportation
- Position: Director of Transportation
- District: Columbus Public Schools, Ohio
In 2010, the 51,000-student Columbus, Ohio, school district considered cutting busing of high school students as a money-saving measure, just as most of the other large districts in the state had done.
But the state’s biggest district managed to come up with a creative solution: Instead of doing away with busing for older students altogether, Columbus eliminated most neighborhood bus stops and used neighborhood schools as centralized stops for older students. The change cut the number of high school bus stops from nearly 1,500 to 230 and pared about $2 million from the district’s $50 million-a-year transportation budget.
“Doing away with the service is doing a disservice to our students,” says Steve A. Simmons III, who came up with the idea. The director of transportation for the past six years, Simmons, 56, has spent 30 years with the district, where he started as a bus mechanic and worked his way up.
His longevity gives him a certain amount of leeway with the school board, he says—though he jokes that he is a “loudmouth.”
“I’m very vocal,” he says, “because I’ve come up through the system.”
John Stanford, the deputy superintendent in charge of operations, lauds Simmons’ creativity in managing district money. “He’s constantly reviewing the industry for best-practice ideas and consulting with his colleagues,” Stanford says.
Getting students to school is a distinct challenge in Ohio’s capital city. The district has no set feeder patterns, because students can enroll in any school that has space for them as part of an intradistrict-choice program. State law requires the district to provide bus transportation to charter and private school students in kindergarten through 8th grade who live within district boundaries but more than two miles from their schools of choice. That means some of the bus routes serve schools outside the city.
Transporting more than 30,000 students daily, the school district maintains 750 routes and can end up making more than 200 modifications a day, as students enter, leave, or move within the district, Simmons says.
Columbus has implemented some innovative programs under Simmons’ watch: For example, a global-positioning tracking system, installed in January 2008, allows the district to monitor every vehicle in its fleet. Zonar Systems, the Seattle-based provider of the technology, says the system offers benefits such as a wireless device that drivers can use for their pre- and post-trip inspection reports and a monitoring system school principals can use to track bus arrivals. The district was an early adopter of the technology, Simmons says.
This school year, the district has expanded its technology use through a student tracking tag that goes on students’ backpacks. The credit-card-size tag, called ZPass, is read by a device inside the bus and can keep track of when students board and exit.
Using the device, “we’ll be able to look up and see that little Stevie’s on bus 255, but he hasn’t gotten off yet,” Simmons says.
Faced with static or shrinking resources, Simmons sometimes has to make unpopular choices, like doing away with “courtesy stops” that picked up children who technically lived within a two-mile radius of their schools. The new routes may be more efficient, he says, “but that means the bus doesn’t go by some houses anymore. The parents don’t necessarily want to hear that.”
Simmons, who is the current president of the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation, suggests that transportation directors could help each other with difficult issues if they worked together. Professionally, he’s expanded his reach beyond the district, serving as a board member of the National Association of Pupil Transportation in Albany, N.Y., and the chairman of the Columbus Transportation and Pedestrian Commission, which reviews transit proposals before they go to the city council.
“If you need help, you need to call your peers,” Simmons says. “People try to fix problems themselves, when there’s probably a thousand people who have fixed it before.”