Q&A with Johnston Community School District

Johnston Community School District is the largest public school district in the City of Johnston, Iowa, with eight schools serving 7,400 students in grades pre-K-12. It covers 40 square miles and includes portions of Des Moines, Granger, Grimes, and Urbandale. Until 2016, the district operated a fleet of 75 buses and employed roughly 60 drivers. In the Spring of 2016, the School Board voted to privatize its transportation services and awarded a five-year contract to Student Transportation of America (STA).

What problems, issues, or needs led you to engage STA?
I’ve been with the Johnston Community School District for six years as a Principal and more recently as Director of Human Resources, so I have been directly involved with student transportation issues for quite some time. Our Board’s decision to outsource student transportation had two primary drivers. First, the budgetary burden of providing transportation for 100 percent of our students was so great that our community agreed to institute slightly more restrictive guidelines for eligibility – 1-mile walk zones for students in grades 1-9 and two miles for grades 10-12. Second, we were struggling to recruit and retain bus drivers and we needed to replace our aging school bus fleet. The labor costs of our unionized transportation workforce had inched up over 40 years of negotiations making our in-house system unsustainable. We’re an educational institution, not a transportation company, and we needed professional transportation management to better service our clients. Moreover, price comparisons showed that privatizing our bus system would result in significant savings. We put a contract out for bid in early 2016.

What made you choose STA? What made their services stand out from others?
After comparing the price points and services outlined by four different bidders, STA emerged as the best fit for our school district. The key factors in our decision included the savings we would realize by not replacing 45 older buses over five years, as well as the option to sell our entire fleet to STA. STA offered us newer buses and upgraded technology for safety and parent convenience. Finally, they would provide us with an experienced transportation team that takes driver recruiting and training off our plate and allow us to focus on education.

What have the implementation phase and ongoing relationship been like?
Although the initial startup was bumpy, which can often be the case, STA quickly brought in the additional resources needed to get things back on track and executives from STA’s regional team came in and stayed on-site until the kinks were worked out. We’re now three years into our STA contract and I’m really pleased. We had some initial problems integrating our student information system with the STA routing system, but the local STA management and national IT teams worked with us to tackle those issues and today we have done a complete 360-degree turnaround. We have a very positive, trusting and productive relationship with STA and our entire staff is confident that they are just a phone call away if we need them. The low unemployment rate in our area makes recruiting drivers an ongoing challenge but we appreciate how hard STA continues to work at it. They also have implemented very efficient routing, which helps us weather the labor shortage. STA is always looking for new routing efficiencies. Because I have the ability to compare the STA service to what we provided when we owned it, it’s clear that STA is outshining us quite a bit. The newer buses provide enhanced safety and the SafeStop school bus tracking app is very much appreciated by parents and makes last-minute routing changes much more manageable.

How is STA aligned with the values that drive your school district?
With STA, I always get the sense that safety is their first and most important priority, which aligns with our approach to all we do. The local STA management team has developed positive relationships with bus drivers and emphasizes positive relationships with students. Our students know that they can approach any Johnston Community School District employee whenever they need something and STA mirrors that approach.

How has working with STA made your job/work life easier?
STA absolutely has made my life easier! I would not want to go back to our in-house transportation system. It has given me back a great deal of time in my workday. I no longer have to work at recruiting and retaining bus drivers and when personnel issues arise, STA handles them. I am no longer the first line of contact when parents have transportation questions – something that saves me a lot of time. Questions do still come up regarding the change in transportation eligibility and I sometimes get involved in these cases, but I simply remind parents that the new rules were a community decision.

What surprised you or pleased you the most about working with STA?
I was very pleased with STA’s response to the issues that arose at the start of their first contract year. It helps that it’s a national company with a great many resources that can be deployed very quickly. They brought in drivers from other areas when we were short and put them up in local hotels until the local team was adequately staffed.

Would you recommend STA to others? What positive benefits would you emphasize?
I have and will continue to recommend STA. We are very pleased with their professional services, which free us up to focus on education.

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